Simplicity in the writing of lyrics is a key part of making a powerful connection to a listener. But simplicity is not equivalent to being humdrum. On the contrary, a simple lyric — one that uses common, everyday words and phrases, should make use of poetic devices that engage the listener.
Imagery is a powerful tool for lyricists. To use imagery means to include words and phrases that tap into and stimulate our physical senses. By using the right words or turns of phrase, a good lyricist can create a multitude of emotions and reactions in the listener.
Imagery can refer to one’s use of metaphor (“Fly me to the moon/ Let me play among the stars”), but can also create a picture in the listener’s mind by playing with sounds. To create a lyric which describes how uncomfortably hot a sunny day is, you might try to assemble words that start with an “s” – simulating the hiss of something cooking. “Sizzle”, “scorching”, “searing”, “sweltering”, etc.
When used well, imagery makes us feel something, not just process it with our minds.
The most powerful part of imagery is the economy of its use. With very few words, you can create many images. In that sense, well-placed imagery allows a lyricist to manipulate an audience. It is manipulation of the best kind.
Imagery is hard to teach, and hard to learn if it’s not coming naturally to you. But that’s certainly not to say that one cannot improve one’s ability to use imagery. The most important part of learning is to find examples of good songwriters’ use of imagery, and then write those words down, save them, and read them often. Let those good examples teach you.
Considering nicely constructed metaphors is an obvious use of what I’m talking about, but here’s a more poignant use of imagery – poignant because of it’s simple directness:
The screen door slams
Mary’s dress waves
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only…
“Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen
It’s a simple scene that he has set here. But it’s powerful, and the setting is clear, and you can practically hear the screen door slamming, so powerful are the images that those simple phrases conjure up. He might have started this verse with a lyric that says how lonely he is without his girl. But the simple scene he sets does more than convey an emotion. It creates a setting that the listener can actually see.
It can be even simpler. In “Hotel California”, the line “I saw a shimmering light” tells us more than the fact that there’s a light ahead. It’s shimmering because we’ve already been told that the setting is a desert, and lights will shimmer in the waves created by heat. So the audience actually feels the heat implied in that line.
As you write your lyrics, consider these thoughts:
- Always use simple, everyday words that would occur in casual conversation.
- Beyond the meaning of the actual words you’re using, what else are your words doing? Are you engaging the audience’s senses? If you’re writing about a winter day, can they feel the cold? Can they hear the snow underfoot? Can they smell the fireplace?
- Create word lists to help. There are many ways to convey a thought and make a listener feel something, so write and rewrite lines of lyric until you get something that creates a powerful image with few words.
- Remember that lyrics need to be supported by the chords, melodies and instrumental choices you make. No one aspect of music works in a vacuum. All song elements are partners.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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