Music - lyrics - imagery

Imagery: Painting a Complete Picture With Few Words

In a lyric, imagery refers to any line that touches on and stimulates our senses. Used well, imagery is able to paint a picture in our minds that fills in many parts of a story with a bare minimum of words.

An example might be something like this: Let’s say you wanted to convey the following scene/impression about your boss:

She has a way of taking the simplest comment I make, and turn it into an argument that seems to last all day.

ad_4_2016You might convey that with this line:

She breathes in ice and breathes out fire.

or maybe you’ll tap into a different part of her personality with this:

She looks for glass she can walk on..

or even

She shackles me to her treadmill of pain…

It’s not just that the line is shorter, although using imagery often does that. It’s more that you can actually see something. The notion of your boss trying to create arguments with you isn’t really something that begs much of an image. But breathing out fire? You see it, feel it, and you might even hear it.

Where does imagery belong?

Imagery belongs anywhere. There’s no one section of a song that doesn’t use it. Because imagery gives us an immediate picture with a minimum of words, it’s often associated with a heightening of emotions, and so you might think it more belongs in a chorus.

But the fact is that imagery simply tries to tell a fuller picture while allowing you to economize your verbiage. Imagery has a way of offering a picture in a rather immediate splash.

Is there ever too much imagery?

That depends. Like any poetic device, or indeed any musical technique, too much of something can become trite, predictable, confusing or boring. Imagery for imagery’s sake is immediately noticeable.

But there are times when layers of lyrics loaded with abstract images can give us an impression of a scene or a person, even if we don’t know specifically what is being said. Perhaps the most famous example of this is John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus”, which contains line after line of gibberish. But even though the words were never meant to be parsed too carefully, we still manage to get a feeling — an attitude, so to speak — that would not be otherwise easy to convey.

Practice Creating Imagery

Here are some scenarios that could serve as a scene you might try to describe in your lyric. Try writing a short line that offers a powerful image relating to something in the scenario. Feel free to share your creations in the comments below.

  1. I took a walk through the woods today, and I encountered beautiful smells that reminded me of my childhood. (Example: “I breathed a memory“)
  2. Every time I get together with my friends, I quickly tire of all the chatter, and really just want to be alone.
  3. My grandmother passed away, and I find myself thinking about how fragile life seems to be: here one minute, gone the next.
  4. I love being busy! I’m a multi-tasker at heart, and I like that everything I do keeps me working with lots of people!
  5. I’m so grateful for my friends. Every time I feel stressed or sad, I can count on them to make me feel better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary, Do you think something I wrote earlier this year to relates to your post?
    I’LL PAINT YOU A PICTURE

    I’ll paint you a picture
    with the notes set free
    from the music that hides
    deep inside me.
    I brush light notes high
    and let dark notes fall,
    but never can sing them
    in their colours at all.

    So I’ll paint you a picture
    if you’ll sing it for me.
    Yes, I’ll paint you a picture
    if you’ll sing it for me.

    I see the bright colours,
    and hear how they blend
    like rainbows to heaven
    that never end,
    but listen in silence
    though sweet music fills
    my heart with enchantment
    as the melody spills.

    Yes the melody spills
    onto a canvas
    that never can speak,
    but quickens the pulse
    with a vibrant beat,
    and silence is strobed
    with jewels of light
    that dance on the canvas
    with secret delight.

    So I’ll paint you a picture
    if you’ll sing it for me.
    Yes, I’ll paint you a picture
    if you’ll sing it for me.

    © Lucy Davis-Benzoni

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