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Show, Don't Tell. 
A Songwriter's Guide to Painting with Words

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. 


Alliteration occurs when two or more words have the same initial sound.  "Always avoid alliteration" is the rule in most forms of prose writing.  But in small doses, alliteration is a rhythmic tool and can provide a powerful hook in a song:

"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 Mitchell, Crazy Cries of Love

An allusion is a reference to some well known place, event or person. With allusion, the songwriter lets someone or something else to handle the heavy lifting in terms of establishing character.  While effective, this approach is risky because it depends on the listener being familiar with the allusion.

Allusions are powerful, because they connect a song to a bigger concept in a single word or phrase. Joni Mitchell uses allusion effectively in her song Sunny Sunday , in which her character "dodges the light like Blanche DuBois." Blanche DuBois is, of course, a character from Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire .  

"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 )


Chiasmus (prnounced ky-AZ-mus) is a literary device in which the order of words is reversed in two parallel expressions

"If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." Stephen Stills , Love the One You're With

"It's the chance of a lifetime, In a lifetime of chance ..." Dan Fogelberg, Run For The Roses

"I've had a taste of society, And society has had a taste of me." Cole Porter , The Tale of the Oyster

This section contributed by Dr. Mardy Grothe , author of Viva la Repartee:Clever Comebacks & Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits & Wordsmiths (HarperCollins)

Here's one more:
"I fly low, I'm in high demand." Stephen Stills , Treetop Flyer

Comparison: Simile & Metaphor

Similes and metaphors are comparisons.  One is overt, the other is implied. A simile says one thing is LIKE or AS another:

"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

Used correctly, dialogue is one of the most powerful ways to  make a song memorable:

" The problem is all inside your head," she said to me ... Paul Simon, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover

"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

Economy of Language
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)

Establishment of Scene
Dylan aside, most popular songs are short; the songwriter must get to the point relatively quickly.  Therefore, effective songs solidly establish a scene in the very first line:

"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

Hyperbole is an exaggeration or extravagant statement.  Hyperbole is an excellent device to use in humorous songs:

"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

Imagery & Symbolism
Imagery is by far the most widely used device in popular song. Once again, imagery depends on the listener's ability to visualize a scene or grasp the weight of a concept within his or her own mind. This forces the listener to "own" the idea and gives a song or poem its power.  Aristotle called this "Pathos" and believed that this was the most powerful form of verbal communication.

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 powerful way.

Personification is a type of metaphor , in which human attributes are given to objects, animals or abstract ideas:

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

    The traditional 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.)

Rhyme and Meter
The majority of popular songs place the rhymes at the end of each line:

"I bet you're wondering how I knew
About your plan to make me blue "
Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong , I Heard it Through the Grapevine

One of the things I love about classic jazz and tunes from Tin Pan Alley is the use of internal rhyme schemes.

"We got ground to dig and worms to scratch
It takes a lot of sittin' gettin' chicks to hatch"
Louis Jordan , Ain't Nobody Here But us Chickens

In my own songwriting, I get a huge thrill when I find an internal rhyme, or just the suggestion of one:

Out in the garden we chant the hand y rhyme
And every fair from wretched we divine
Jayme Kelly Curtis, Tall Poppies

In both these examples we see the predictable rhyme at the end of the line and we're also treated to rhymes in the middle of the line.

Rhymes can be perfect or imperfect. It's a fine line, but to me, an imperfect rhyme is part of the fun of songwriting. Here's one of my favorites:

"I got a hot water bottle , but nothin I got'll take the place of you holding me tight!" - Jerry Ross & Richard Adler , Steam Heat

One of the exciting things about songwriting is how popular artists push boundaries and create new rhyme schemes. The Beatles were famous for expanding the limits of song structure:

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.

For fun, compare "All My Loving," with "For The Benefit of Mr. Kite."

Close your eyes and I'll kiss you
Tomorrow I'll miss you


For the benefit of Mr. Kite
There will be a show to night on trampoline

The first is a simple traditional rhyme scheme. The second takes that same simple scheme but tacks an extra four syllables at the end of the second line.

Incidentally, legend says the Mr. Kite lyrics were copied from a vintage play bill. Proof that songwriting inspiration can strike anywhere and a good example of the power of judicious editing - probably your most important songwriting tool.

A Final Thought

Oscar Wilde said "A poet can survive everthing but a misprint."
Tom Robins said "There is no such thing as a synonymn."
I say "Every verb is an opportunity."

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

Copyrights of sample lyrics are respectfully acknowledged.


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P.O. Box 278
Felton, CA 95018
831 338-4410
Jayme at purrgirl dot com

  ©Jayme Kelly Curtis 2013