Song Lyrics Need to Stimulate the Imagination

How to get an audience thinking what and how you want them to think.

____________"From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro"

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Bruno Mars - GrenadeAs a song moves from one section to another (e.g., from verse to chorus, chorus to bridge, etc.), several things change with respect to the way you write the lyrics. You’ll want to make note of two things in particular:

  1. The kinds of things you write about will vary depending on where in the song you are;
  2. The kinds of words you use will depend on whether they’re verse, chorus or bridge words.

It’s almost always the case that verse lyrics are the toughest to write, and the reason for that pertains to those two points just listed. A verse lyric is going to develop the storyline, the circumstance and/or the general theme of your story. That’s got to be done in a way that stimulates the imagination. So the difficulty with writing a good verse lyric is that you’ve got to give the listener creatively-constructed images that spark the imagination while telling a story. That’s point number 1. The kinds of things you’ll write about in a verse need to be unveiling an interesting story with a captivating topic or theme.

Contrast that with the kinds of things you’ll write about in a chorus. The chorus is not where you’ll usually amplify a story line. In fact, it’s where you’ll usually describe an emotional response to the story. If you think of the verse as pulling your listener into your narrative using images and descriptions, the chorus is where you emote alongside the listener.

The second point listed above naturally flows from point number 1. The chorus will use different kind of words, the kind that are meant to elicit a passionate kind of response from the listener. By using effective imagery in the verse, your chorus uses exclamations (“Ooh”, “yeah”, “Oh”, etc.), and words that refer directly to emotions (“I love you…”, “I’d do anything…”, “I can’t live without you…”, etc.).

A textbook demonstration of this comes from Lennon & McCartney’s “She Loves You“, where the verse tells the story (“You think you’ve lost your love/ Well, I saw her yesterday/ It’s you she’s thinking of…”), while the chorus gets you to emote along with the singer (“She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…”).

A more recent example from Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” shows how the verse can still describe emotions while pulling the listener along through the story.


Easy come, easy go
That's just how you live, oh
Take, take, take it all
But you never give
Should've known you was trouble...



I'd catch a grenade for you (yeah, yeah, yeah)
Throw my hand on a blade for you (yeah, yeah, yeah)
I'd jump in front of a train for you (yeah, yeah, yeah)

One of the most important aspects of what you see in good lyrics is the common, everyday nature of the words used. Even lyricists known for the excellent lyrics understand that if you want to make a connection to the audience, you need to use the kinds of words you’d hear spoken in the local Walmart. If you’re trying to find a way to fit “acrimonious” into your lyric, you’re dangerously close to losing your audience.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. With Respect To Harlan, the kind of simplicity that he and many adored, suited a time in the evolution of Pop Music, that is now history.

    The secret is writing it so that it sound simple, and that’s the difficult bit, it’s great that we all have different views, last year The Country Copy Cats released too many songs about trucks, and that is one of the reasons country is not selling .

    We need more titles about different subjects Quote from the late Tom T Hall

  2. To quote my good friend (now deceased) Nashville Hit Country Songwriter Harlan Howard, :Three Chords and The Truth” will get it done almost every time. Or in other words, Keep it Simple, Stupid.

  3. Pingback: FEATURED ARTICLE: Song Lyrics Need to Stimulate the Imagination | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  4. I’m pleased for the man that writes novels as well, not at all amused but surprised,
    Yes we can quote exceptions of the simplicity rule, all day long and as one who was lucky to appear on the same Bill as the Beatles in my youth, I am very aware of the most successful band of all time. The simplicity of the lyrics of Yesterday, married to a beautiful melody was always something I prefered to sing , and still do .

    Yes in general keep long syllable words for novels, thats what counts, and that’s what Gary intended.

  5. Hi Gary, thanks for your answer.

    As I said, I really dig your post, although I still think as artists, we ought to allow ourselves the freedom to write what we feel the piece needs. My latest answer did prove your point and mine at the same time, which was my intention since I was answering mister Wood-Jenkin’s comment on what we should and shouldn’t be doing when writing a song. Btw I do write and publish novels (that should amuse him), but I also write, publish and perform songs, most of which, admitedly, are made of extremely simple words. I don’t deny the attraction most of us experienced pop creators feel for simplicity.

    Tell you what. Let’s go a little further. I think “smart” lyrics that try to show off the author’s new found vocabulary make bad songs. But bad songs can sell, even the pretentious variety. Can’t we agree that elaborate writing or terminology never stopped anyone from selling (at least some) records or reaching a public? And more importantly, can’t we, at the writing stage, not care too much about success, money, royalties, and try to create the best little luminous pebble we can come up with?

    Once had a producer call me from the studio where the star, in the cabin, was suddenly wondering, after a year of pre-prod and rehearsals what “Cochabamba” meant. I stayed calm, they all understood and grocked the explanation, kept the word in (phew!), and the single was a hit song. Not every listener gets the meaning of that word (a city in Bolivia where rain water was taxed until the people revolted), but it simply sounds right and the kids can dance to the thing. And apart from a few esoteric notions, that song is a perfect example of what your article proposes.

    Keep it real. Love it.

    • Yes, I think that’s a good point. Writers should always have the freedom to write what the piece needs, and I wouldn’t dispute that. Of course (and I’m sure you know this) for every guideline or principle (“rule”) you can come up with in music composition, you can come up with a list of songs that don’t do that, and that’s what makes music so great. So my comment that most songs use simple, everyday words, is, out of necessity, a generalization.

      Thanks for your good comments. (And now, of course, someone is going to write a song using “acrimonious…”) (“He sounded like Thelonious/ Which made me feel acrimonious”)


  6. Gary ‘s point was a generality, if you want to use a five syllable word, that hardly anyone uses especially in street talk you should be writing novels . Great songs are not built with lyrics that 90 % of the audience don’t understand.

    Study the best songs ever written . songs that made a fortune for the writers, you wont see
    rarely used words, words not used in general conversation . the idea of a popular song lyric is one that the masses can be entertained by.

    Simplicity is the key to a well written song lyric, Not something to rival The Gettysburg Address.

    • Steely Dan (underground unknown punks):

      I crawl like a viper
      Through these suburban streets
      Make love to these women
      Languid and bittersweet
      I’ll rise when the sun goes down
      Cover every game in town
      A world of my own
      I’ll make it my home sweet home

      This is the night
      Of the expanding the man
      I take one last drag
      As I approach the stand
      I cried when I wrote this song
      Sue me if I play too long
      This brother is free
      I’ll be what I want to be

      — — — — —

      The Beatles (hardly sold any records):

      I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.
      See how they run like pigs from a gun, see how they fly.
      I’m crying.

      Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come.
      Corporation tee-shirt, stupid bloody Tuesday.
      Man, you been a naughty boy, you let your face grow long.
      I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
      I am the walrus, coo coo ca-choo

      Mister City Policeman sitting
      Pretty little policemen in a row.
      See how they fly like Lucy in the Sky, see how they run.
      I’m crying, I’m crying.
      I’m crying, I’m crying.

      Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.
      Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess,
      Boy, you been a naughty girl you let your knickers down.
      I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
      I am the walrus, coo coo ca-choo.

      Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.
      If the sun don’t come, you get a tan
      From standing in the English rain.
      I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
      I am the walrus, coo coo ca-choo coo coo ca-choo.

      Expert textpert choking smokers,
      Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?
      See how they smile like pigs in a sty,
      See how they snied.
      I’m crying.

      Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
      Elementary penguin singing Hari Krishna.
      Man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.
      I am the eggman, they are the eggmen.
      I am the walrus, coo coo ca-choo

      — — — — —

      Michael McDonald (obscure singer):

      She musters a smile for his nostalgic tale
      Never coming near what he wanted to say
      Only to realize
      It never really was

      She had a place in his life
      He never made her think twice
      As he rises to her apology
      Anybody else would surely know
      He’s watching her go

      But what a fool believes … he sees

      — — — — — 

      King Crimson (one more flop):

      The dance of the puppets
      The rusted chains of prison moons
      Are shattered by the sun.
      I walk a road, horizons change
      The tournament’s begun.
      The purple piper plays his tune,
      The choir softly sing;
      Three lullabies in an ancient tongue,
      For the court of the crimson king.

      The keeper of the city keys
      Put shutters on the dreams.
      I wait outside the pilgrim’s door
      With insufficient schemes.
      The black queen chants
      The funeral march,
      The cracked brass bells will ring;
      To summon back the fire witch
      To the court of the crimson king.

      The gardener plants an evergreen
      Whilst trampling on a flower.
      I chase the wind of a prism ship
      To taste the sweet and sour.
      The pattern juggler lifts his hand;
      The orchestra begin.
      As slowly turns the grinding wheel
      In the court of the crimson king.

      On soft gray mornings widows cry
      The wise men share a joke;
      I run to grasp divining signs
      To satisfy the hoax.
      The yellow jester does not play
      But gentle pulls the strings
      And smiles as the puppets dance
      In the court of the crimson king

      — — — — — 

      Pink Floyd (who ever heard of them?):

      Lime and limpid green, a second scene
      A fight between the blue you once knew.
      Floating down, the sound resounds
      Around the icy waters underground.
      Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania.
      Neptune, Titan, Stars can frighten.

      — — — — — 

      I’ll stop right here with the extracts, but I could have spent the everning on Leonard Cohen, Talking Heads, Cocorosie, Pretenders, The Clash, Sherryl Crow, etc.

      • You’re losing me. It sounds like you’re missing the couple of simple points I was making: 1) Lyrics need to stimulate the imagination; and 2) lyrics are most effective when using common everyday words. By-and-large, the lyrics you’ve posted do both those things.

        Am I missing your point, or are you missing mine?

  7. Agree with ericmccomber. acrimonious might be the only word for some situations. It’s always a mistake to assume your audience is dumb.

  8. I agree with most of this, but I feel that if what a song really needs is “acrimonious”, then acrimonious it is (great band name : Acrimonious Monk). You still can make a favorable impression on the 209 million anglo people who understand this word. And you might even please some of those with more of a literary life by using terminology that is at once very precise and not in every song out there. Thanks for the great post!

  9. Yet again another excellent breakdown of the way a popular song is built, I think in general as well as the points mentioned by your good self, We can look at the chorus (especially in Story songs), Re “The Gambler” written by Schiltz a hit for Kenny Rogers, The Chorus contains words pointing to what is going on in the verses of the song in brief A Summary of the storyline.

    Peter Jenkins P.J.Xanadu Music Publishing M.C.P.S.

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