Joni Mitchell

Imagery: A Big Picture From Few Words

The concept of imagery in lyric writing is a simple one: using words to create images or ideas in the mind of the listener. You could argue that practically all lyrics will do this, even if they’re not specifically thought of as being a good example of imagery.

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But it’s probably fair to say that most good examples of imagery involve lyrics that use few words compared to the rather large picture they can paint. The large picture comes about by using some standard poetic devices, including:

  • metaphor
  • simile
  • aliteration
  • double meaning
  • well-chosen adjectives and adverbs

Imagery never works on its own in a song. Your meaningful words become all the more powerful because of how your words are set. So melodic construction, chord choice, and production decisions will all either enhance what you’re doing with words, or they will diminish what you’re doing.

Good imagery plants pictures in your brain, but most good examples do something else: they give you images that aren’t necessarily clear when you first encounter them; over time, your brain processes other more complex words and phrases, and modifies those images.

Everyone has their own favourite examples of image-filled lyrics, but I always find myself going to Joni Mitchell. It’s not just that she creates lyrics that are so powerful, but the music itself contributes so much to the lyrical power.

From her 1976 album “Hejira”, the song “A Strange Boy” is a great example of how simple lyrical imagery can be while still being powerful. Read these words as she tries to describe this “strange boy”:

A strange boy is weaving
A course of grace and havoc
On a yellow skateboard
Thru midday sidewalk traffic
Just when I think he’s foolish and childish
And I want him to be manly
I catch my fool and my child
Needing love and understanding

The lyric pulls you along because you want to know more. Who is this boy? A son? A lover? We certainly get a picture right away: the youthful image of a young man/boy on a skateboard, but contrasting images keep getting thrown at us:

  • grace/havoc
  • wanting/needing
  • childish/manly

And like all great lyrics do, they make us want to know more. The musical setting is brooding, unsettled and dark. We start to get a fuller picture as the words flow: probably a lover, someone who is at war with himself, knowing he needs to “grow up”, but not sure how or why that should come about.

And Mitchell enhances that sense of conflict within his mind by constantly throwing contrasting images at us as the lyric continues: “crazy wisdom”, “wild/patient”, “mass/space”, and so on.

With every line, you get a clearer picture, but you still get pulled along, wanting to know more. And as you learn more, the original thoughts you’ve had about certain lines of lyric change. The picture acquires more colour, more enhancements.

That’s what great imagery does. It doesn’t offer the entire meaning on a platter in front of you. It gives you fragments of images that you are required to assemble. Not everyone will assemble them in the same way, and true enough, some will give up on the challenge.

The best way to improve your own ability to write lyrics that are full of imagery is to find those lyricists that do it well, and listen to their music. Get your own impression of what the song is about, and then look at the lines and phrases that support that impression.

With each good example (and assuming you’re writing every day), you find your own lyric-writing abilities changing and improving.

Imagery is something you can practice. It can be as simple as something doing these two things:

  1. Write a simple phrase that clearly conveys an unmistakeable picture: a hot day, a heavy rain, a helpful friend, etc.
  2. Write as many phrases and words as you can come up with that displays some aspect of that clear picture. For “a hot day”, for example, you might write: “dry air from a furnace”, “clinging shirt”, “sun-reddened skin”, “a windless scorching sky”…

Your first attempts may seem lame, but with every attempt you improve.

Anything you can do to improve your lyrics is time well spent. If you’re hoping that your songs survive the test of time, a strong, meaningful lyric will be a vital part of your legacy.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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