Song Metaphors: No, Listeners Don’t Have to “Get It”

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song lyricsI was reading an online article recently about the use of metaphor in songwriting. The gist of the article was that ultimately, your listeners have to understand what the song is about. After all, there’s nothing to relate to if they don’t understand the song. I was kind of startled by this, because a simple examination of songwriting history disproves that point of view. There are many songs that use metaphors and abstract story-telling very successfully, where it’s not clear at all what’s being described. What is important, however, is that your listeners have a theory about the song. And even there…

Here’s a short list of songs that made it on to the Billboard charts, songs where abstract metaphors and double-meaning comprised a large part of the lyric: “Fly Me To the Moon” (Bart Howard), 1955; “I am the Walrus” (The Beatles) 1967; “25 or 6 to 4” (Chicago) 1970; “Roundabout” (Yes) 1972; “A Horse With No Name” (America) 1973; “Hotel California” (The Eagles) 1976; “Blinded By The Light” (Bruce Springsteen), recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band in 1977.

All of these songs use metaphor in different ways. Some of them use metaphor in a very straight-forward way, where it’s quite obvious what’s being sung about, and why the metaphor is so appropriate. “Fly Me to the Moon” is a good example of this. In fact, the composer Bart Howard finishes each verse with “In other words…“. Very helpful.

For other songs, a relatively simple story is recounted, but implies deeper, unspoken meaning, such as with “Hotel California” and “A Horse With No Name”.

And still others are songs where the lyric, and the actual meaning, is so obscure that it would likely take an explanation by the songwriter to clear it up for us. “I am the Walrus” “Blinded by the Light” and “25 or 6 to 45” are examples of these kinds of songs.

And in each case, even with the most abstract lyrics, the actual meaning of the song does not necessarily frustrate the listener to the point where they don’t want to listen. As I pointed out, all of the songs have charted.

But they all use metaphor in a different way. For some, the metaphor is a relatively simple double meaning. For others, the song is a series of metaphors that seem to be unrelated.

So what is the deal with metaphor, then, and how can you use it successfully in your songs? Is it vital that you give the audience some clue within the lyric as to the actual meaning? No.

Having said that, my opinion is that the best song lyrics are ones that give a hint or clue, even if it’s well-hidden within the text of the song, as to its true meaning. These kinds of lyrics are double-meaning lyrics. The song may be about a trip up a mountainside, but in fact it’s really about a troublesome time in your life.

By hiding clues within your lyric, you allow listeners to debate and theorize. And in the final analysis, the actual meaning may not be that important. What is important is that the listeners are thinking about your song.

The most important thing about a song lyric is that it captures the imagination of listeners, and entertains people even if they can’t figure out the double meaning.

It reminds me about a debate I was having years ago about Richard Adams’ wonderful book, “Watership Down”. Several of us were comparing theories about its meaning. It stopped us in our tracks when someone said, “My theory is that it’s a cute story about rabbits.”

To me, metaphor has been used to its best effect if your listeners wonder if you’re even using a metaphor at all!


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. We could go back & forth about this a long time without coming to a conclusion.
    On the one hand I understand that “awopbababaloobopawopbamboom” is a perfect line although I couldn’t explain what it means whereas other stuff seems too vague, too obscure to me.
    Howver I fear that many songwriters could use your reasoning to absolve themselves from working on a song to really get a point across. They’ll argue they’re communicating “something” and that’s good enough.

  2. This is a very interesting topic, one that I often debate with songwriter friends.
    I agree that you don’t have to spell everything out for the listener but you do want to give some clues. It’s often a very fine line between being too vague and too literal, often one line or one phrase will make the crucial difference.
    A songwriter’s job is to communicate (isn’t it?). Primarily to communicate emotion, not necessarily facts & figures.
    In that sense, I’m not sure a song like Blinded By The Light is successful. Yes, it may sound interesting for a bit, perhaps even evoke emotion but ultimately I feel it lets the listener down because upon close inspection, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it’s trying to communicate. And if it doesn’t communicate, it doesn’t achieve its goal, does it?
    Then again, there’s a whole bunch of songs (Pancho & Lefty comes to mind) that I wouldn’t be able to explain or interpret and yet I feel are close to perfection.
    Very interesting topic, this.

    • I agree that the songwriter’s job is to communicate, but metaphor can allow for the obscuring of the meaning in such a way as to simply allow the listener to go in a different direction. I can’t claim to know what “Blinded By the Light” is all about, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t doing its job of communication. I think there is a kind of “energy” that comes from abstract lyrics. I find myself looking for anything within the lyric that gives me a clue, and I then try to see other bits of lyric in terms of trying to support that idea. Sometimes I get a theory, and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, I suppose that I accept that communication itself is happening in an abstract sort of way.

      Abstract lyrics are like listening to two people arguing, speaking a language I don’t understand. Though I don’t really understand the meaning of the words I am hearing, I still feel that they are communicating something.


      • Songwriting isn’t a job, it’s a craft. The songwriter doesn’t have a job to perform, songwriters have creative objectives they’re intrinsically motivated to accomplish.

        Songwriters existence is not thanks to Xanax peddlers and shoe salesmen –it is thanks to songwriters that pill peddlers and sloppy shoemakers who’d otherwise go belly up, can even unload their carpetbaggery wares.

        Songwriters don’t need them, they need songwriters –they can’t sell crappy shoes or snag kids/potential lifelong pill customers without a catchy jingle or a Singing Celebrity Endorsement…they can’t even come up with any worthwhile products people want or need…let alone write songs to persuade the public to buy things they don’t want or need.

        Songwriters don’t have to communicate anything or even “something.” Songwriters can communicate nothing. And THAT’s enough.

        They’ll not argue anything –the burden is on those who can’t write songs, to argue how they’ll continue to try to absolve themselves from paying compensation that justifies those songwriters setting aside their own songwriting objectives, to provide aid to those are aren’t capable of writing themselves, the jingles and songs they need to sell their product.

        There’s always a market for epic poetry. The days of predatory lending practices recording contract advances are over. So are the days of publishing houses and distributors.

        It doesn’t even matter what Blinded by the Light is about, anymore.

        (Slavery. It’s about existing slavery. It’s not really not even very metaphorical at all. Though it might seem to be to the slave traders it’s blowing the whistle on? Calliope isn’t actually a metaphor, or even a clue, really. It just helps to already know Calliope.

  3. Yeah, I agree with Mandy inasmuch as I’d put most of what you are talking about down to images.

    Something like the Bob Dylan song ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ when he’s talking about pain and says ‘Like a corkscrew to my heart…’ – you FEEL it. He doesn’t try to tel you how bad his pain is, he shows it.

    The human mind or imagination does not respond as well to ideas or abstract concepts, as it does to solid images. There’s an excellent section in John Braheny’s equally excellent book ‘The Craft and Business of Songwriting’ called ‘The Imagination of the Listener’ which discusses this in great detail.

    It’s due to this natural instinct for our minds to wrap themselves around images that the great songwriters and their songs are lauded for the intricately small details that point to much larger things.

    Tom Waits is an absolute master at this. The song ‘Soldier’s Things’ is a case in point for very specific physical details pointing to much larger concepts and feelings.

    However, just piling your songs with great images isn’t enough.

    The way I look at this, and what really stands out for me about songs is realising that by design, the narration and the pace of great songs never gives you EVERYTHING in terms of information – they give you just enough to kick start your own imagination and let you do the rest.

    It’s almost identical to the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher:

    A bad teacher will just tell the students what they need to know and try to force the information in.

    A good teacher asks their pupils questions, giving them SOME information, just enough, and forcing their minds to do the rest.

    It’s by leaving the space there for our minds to fill that we are drawn into these songs. Our minds don’t like the vacuum created by the open images and are forced to fill them.

    Good writers always say ‘Show, don’t tell’.

    It’s a beautiful trick they play on us.

    • Thanks for those good points, Gideon. In a sense, what you’re saying is that we need to trust listeners to be able to assimilate the images that you’re presenting in your song. I often talk about the verse as “telling the story”, but in reality most songs don’t tell a story in the literal sense. They describe circumstances from the inside, putting the listener right there. In that sense, they show more than tell. Or at least they should.

      Thanks again,

  4. Wow this is something to think about.

    I’d say that it’s not the metaphor that propelled these mentioned songs to the top of the charts–it’s the radically vivid imagery. Yeah, at the end of the song, I’m still not sure what’s going on in Hotel California, or why they can’t get out, but I have “seen” every scene of the song in my mind’s eye. I’m fully engaged in what’s going on. Sort of like a dream–I’m sucked into the story. All the pieces don’t fit together, but it’s still fascinating and fun.

    I agree that a well-used metaphor will be accessible, although slightly mysterious and just-out-of-reach.

    But, in these songs, I think the strength is in the imagery, not the metaphor itself. Listeners forgive, or don’t even notice, the confusion because they’re so mesmerized by the pictures being painted with words and sounds.

    • Hi Mandy – Yes, I agree with you. I think people love imagery, even if they don’t understand it. And unless the lyrics are really just plain bad, songs can be successful, and can be great examples of songwriting, even if no one really understands what is being sung about.

      I remember when I heard “Blinded By the Light” when I was a teenager. It felt like being on a roller coaster! I had no idea at all what the song was about, but it didn’t really seem to matter. And I can’t imagine anyone saying to Springsteen, “Look man, you really have to rewrite that one. No one’s gonna get it…”.

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