At its heart, imagery is a simple concept. When you write something that causes images in the mind of the listener, you’ve just made use of imagery.
You could argue that imagery, therefore, happens all the time. I could say “I went to a baseball game this afternoon,” and you likely will get images in your mind of baseballs, bats, players and fans. That’s the way the human mind works. Processing images is an important part of what it means to be human.
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But I think we can all agree that that’s not what we’re talking about when we use the word imagery. It’s more succinct than that. To use imagery in lyrics usually means that we are able to create a more complete picture from a minimum of words.
A novel might use 80,000 or more words to give us an entire story. With a song lyric, you usually get far less. “50 Ways to Say Goodbye”, (Patrick Monahan, Espen Lind, Amund Bjørklund), recorded by Train, uses about 300 words — a lot for a pop song. Rihanna’s hit song “We Found Love” (Calvin Harris) uses only 70 words if you don’t count repetition.
And yet you could argue that a good song lyric can give you a very complete picture with those very few words. Efficiency is a powerful characteristic of a good song lyric.
Look at the following lines of lyric, and notice what a few good lines can do to set a mood and even give you a fairly complete picture of a situation:
Leonard Cohen: “Closing Time” (1992)
Ah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high
Peter Gabriel: “My Body Is a Cage” (2010)
I’m standing on a stage
Of fear and self doubt
It’s a hollow play
But they’ll clap anyway
Foo Fighters: “Learn to Fly (1999) (Dave Grohl, Nate Mendel, Taylor Hawkins)
Run and tell all of the angels
This could take all night
Think I need a devil to help me get things right
It’s hard to teach imagery; the best examples come from songwriters for whom imaginative lyrics come naturally. But you can certainly increase your abilities by exploring good lyrics and making note of what you like.
Exploring is important, because it’s not easy to find great examples of powerful imagery in Billboard Hot 100 lyrics. This is a time when you need to get onto online forums and find out who other songwriters are being inspired by.
So research and learn. There really is no such thing as a “best lyricist” when it comes to this sort of thing because it depends on your genre of choice, and then the choices become very personal. One person may love a lyric while someone else may claim that it just doesn’t speak to them.
And then: PRACTICE! Try your hand at writing two or three lines that say more than what you see in front of your eyes. Do this without trying to write a lyric — just get words combining in a way that creates a full picture.
An Imagery Exercise
Try this short exercise: choose a simple topic or situation, like, “I feel uncomfortably hot walking along this road.” Now think of the number of ways you can tell us that you’re feeling the heat of the sun, while possibly telling us even more in that one sentence: “Fires burned overhead, no shelter to find/ Like those who would hurt me, the sun is unkind.”
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