A basic rule of creative writing is to show the reader (listener) what you see or feel, as opposed to telling them. Applying the tools of creative writing can make a song far more compelling, because it allows for freer interpretation on the part of the listener. Tools like metaphor and personification, symbolism and imagery require the listener to make mental connections and to draw from their own experience.
I believe songwriting is about tapping into the creative unconscious. But if you have an understanding of the tools of poetry, those tools are more likely to bubble to the surface when you need them. In the words of Joyce Anue, one of my favorite yoga teachers, "chance favors a prepared mind."
The definitions and devices listed here can be used as exercises -- a process that can be helpful if you are blocked. Pick one and go. These explanations are based on my personal observations. It is by no means a comprehensive list.
"I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham..." Emmylou Harris and Bill Danoff, Boulder to Birmingham
"I've been from Tucson to Tucumcarie, Tehachapie to Tonapah" Lowell George, Willin'
(Curiously, both these examples involve geographic locations)
"The crazy cries of love" Joni
Cries of Love
"I see my face on the surface. I
look a lot like Narcissus."
Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls), Hammer and a Nail
"He starts to shake and cough just like that old man in that book by Nabokov." Sting, Don't Stand So Close to Me (the book, of course, is Lolita)
"Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir I have tried in my way to be free." Leonard Cohen, Bird on the Wire
"Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat." John Prine, Donald and Lydia
"The sun poured in like butterscotch and stuck to all my senses." Joni Mitchell, Chelsea Morning
"You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide." Richard Thompson, The Dimming of the Day
A metaphor implies the comparison in a more elegant way, by omitting the LIKE or the AS in favor of ARE, AM and IS:
"We ARE stardust, we are golden." Joni Mitchell, Woodstock
Love IS a rose but you better not pick it only grows when it's on the vine." Neil Young (Linda Ronstadt), Love is a Rose
"I'm just a link in your chain." Aretha Franklin, Chain of Fools
"Your eyes were bluer than robin's eggs." Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust
In popular songs, metaphors are often less overt. Comparisons become tangential:
"Old trees just grow stronger, old rivers grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome." John Prine, Hello inThere
The writer has tangentially connected the aging process with the beauty and eternal quality of trees and rivers. It is this kind of metaphor that creates room for individual interpretation and makes a song meaningful in different ways for different people. Additionally, metaphors often contain imagery that is useful in establishing the scene or the mood of the song.
Remember, metaphor is a type of comparison. Here the character is asking to be like the colorful image on the poster, as opposed to the black and white life she currently leads:
"Make me an angel that flies from
Montgomery, make me a poster of
an old rodeo." John Prine, Angel from Montgomery
The comparative function of the metaphor is not always apparent. In this example, we don't consciously think "This means his love's smile is like the sun shining." We simply understand:
"The heavens open every time
she smiles." Van
Morrison, Crazy Love
"The way I see it," he said, "you
just can't win ..." Joni
Mitchell, Free Man in Paris
"There must be some kind of way out of here," said the joker to the thief. Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower
"Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?" Jimi Hendrix, Hey Joe
Said Red Molly to James, "that's a fine motorbike," Richard Thompson, 1952 Vincent Black Lightening
Poetry is all about finding a new, more elegant way to express an old sentiment. For me, the moment when a songwriter's meaning becomes clear is one of life's great pleasures.
"A poet should not walk across a space
he can clear at a bound."
Joseph Joubert (18th century French moralist and essayist)
"The joint is a dump, the owner is broke." Greg Brown, Mose Allison Played Here
"We lease 20 acres and one Ginny mule from the Alabama Trust." Gillian Welch, Annabelle
"God, I feel like hell tonight." Cheryl Crow, Strong Enough
"We had an apartment in the city, and me and Loretta liked living there." John Prine, Hello in There
"Now I'm just a bartender and I
don't like my work." James
Taylor, Bartenders Blues
"With rats a-runnin' round the size of caribou." Peter Berryman, Squalor
"In Oleanna land is free, the wheat and corn just plant themselves." Pete Seeger, Oleanna
But humor is not always the intent:
"I must have been through
about a million girls."
Elvin Bishop, Fooled Around and Fell in Love
Tom Waits relies heavily on imagery in his music: "Tight slack-clad girls on a graveyard shift..." Drunk on the Moon
Symbolism is a form of pathos, because it relies on the listeners ability to interpret and sense the impact of the words:
"What's that you say Mrs. Robinson? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away." Paul Simon, Mrs.Robinson
Joe DiMaggio evokes
the imagery of the baseball
field and its attendant feelings of wholesomeness. Further,
DiMaggio is an effective symbol of an era that has just passed.
Here the symbol conveys the feeling of lost innocence in a very
Example: "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Paul Simon, Mrs.Robinson
Can a nation have eyes? Can it be lonely?
"Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and a madman's soul." Joni Mitchell, Court and Spark
"I'm a slave to my belly 'cause it's got to be fed. Every morning, well it lifts me out of bed and says: 'Go to work for me baby. Buy me some bread and some wine.'" Catie Curtis, Slave to My Belly
"Take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile." Eric Anderson, Thirsty Boots
folk song "John Barleycorn" is an
excellent example of personification: "They cut him off at the
knee... they rolled him and tied him about the waist... and Little Sir
John proved the strongest man at last." (Remember, we're talking
about a stalk of grass.)
Please let me know if you have suggestions for more topics for this page!
Share your thoughts or contributions to this free songwriting tutorial by sending e-mail to: Jayme at purrgirl dot com
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Copyrights of sample lyrics are respectfully acknowledged.