How Imagery Empowers Song Lyrics

Properly applied, imagery will make your lyrics more powerful and more memorable. Here’s how.

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Singer Lyrical imageryImagery means to use words and phrases that appeal to, and perhaps stimulate, our physical senses. Imagery, when used correctly in the writing of song lyrics, has several immediate benefits, each one of which naturally progresses to the next benefit:

  1. It clarifies and deepens meaning by partnering meaning with emotional relevance.
  2. It then intensifies emotions.
  3. It then makes lyrics (and by extension, songs) more easily remembered.

Imagery is often thought of as a synonym for metaphor and simile, but it is more all-encompassing than that (though it does include metaphor and simile). In its most basic usage, imagery means creating whatever words and phrases necessary to stimulate a response from our physical senses.

It’s an important part of writing good lyrics, because imagery allows you to hear the voices of the song’s characters more clearly, and feel the emotional content of what they’re saying more intensely. Imagery allows the listener to place him/herself inside the song: to see the picture, hear the sounds, feel their effects, and so on.

Sometimes, imagery intensifies emotions by using a simple metaphor, as in the third line of this Cole Porter classic, “So In Love“:

Strange, dear, but true, dear,
When I’m close to you dear,
The stars fill the sky,
So in love with you am I.

 In that lyric, even though it’s the third line that provides a clear picture for the listener to relate to, you can also pick up other aspects of the style of writing that qualify as imagery. In particular, the constant use of the word “dear”, which offers a feeling of tenderness and warmth.

Sometimes, lyricists will attempt to intensify emotion even though the specific meaning of what they’re writing is left up for debate. In other words, powerful imagery can deepen the emotional power of a song, while leaving the meaning ambiguous. A great example of powerful imagery used in this way is the Lennon-McCartney tune “Come Together” from the Abbey Road album:

Here come old flattop, he come grooving up slowly
He got joo-joo eyeball, he one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker he just do what he please

We’re not sure who he’s writing about, or why (and by Lennon’s admission, it’s “gobbledygook”), but there is no denying the effect of the words. The emotional power of the images is clear, even if (paradoxically) the meaning isn’t.

Imagery is not something you want to consider an afterthought in the writing of lyrics. They need to be considered at the front end of the creation of your song’s text. Try this:

  1. Write your song topic across the top of a page.
  2. Write a brief paragraph that centres in on the point of your song: what is it really all about?
  3. Create two lists of words: one which contains words and phrases that pertain directly to your topic, the other which contains words and phrases that describe emotional reactions/feelings pertaining to your topic.
  4. In both lists, create words and phrases that conjure up images and otherwise stimulate the senses. They may apply directly or indirectly to your song topic.

That final step taps into imagery, and gives you a vocabulary of interesting combinations of words that will empower your lyric. If, for example your song topic is: Helping the Homeless, you might create a paragraph of how a homeless person ended up being the person who somehow helped you, giving you a dollar when you were digging for change at the bus stop.

Next, your first word list might include words like: homeless, rags, staring, sitting, sleeping, tatters… Your emotional word list might include: angry, sneering, look away, pity, helpless, why, hope…

For your imagery list, you might come up with phrases like “dirty life”, “fallen between the cracks”, “daughter of despair,” “cloudy eyes” “would do anything for change”, “wind-swept gaze”. Keep in mind that you won’t use all of these phrases, but it’s good to have a vocabulary of ideas that can stimulate your imagination, and get you creating better, more powerful lyrics.

It’s amazing how much simple imagery can empower your writing style, and make your lyrics a thing of beauty. It doesn’t take much, and results in your audience feeling what you’re writing in the most poignant way possible.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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