Like so many things in the creative arts, imagery is difficult to define with any kind of precision. Of course you could say that imagery in songwriting is, simply, anything that creates images in the mind of the listener.
But to me, there’s more to it, because practically anything you write will create images. In “You Belong With Me”, Taylor Swift wrote:
You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset
She’s going off about something that you said
‘Cause she doesn’t get your humor like I do
And you get images in your mind right away. But while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that lyric, it’s not what we usually mean by imagery. So what then?
Specifically, I’d say that good imagery has that particular quality of creating a maximum of images in a listener’s mind with a minimum of words. In that regard, there’s an efficiency in good imagery. With a few well-chosen words, a good lyricist can generate multiple, perhaps complex, images.
Most of the time, we value a good lyricist’s ability to do this sort of thing without really realizing that that’s what we’re valuing. In other words, the good lyricists have a way of painting a full and comprehensive scene with just a few well-placed words.
Often it comes down to word choice, because the words you finally settle on will give us deeper meanings — some important subtext — that paints that fuller picture.
Fat man sitting on a little stool
Takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you
His choice of “his eyes take a walk all over you” says more than “he couldn’t take his eyes off you.” It gives us the man’s attitude. He sounds a little “greasier” — a little smarmier. That’s what I mean when I say that with a minimum of words we get a fuller picture.
“Tunnel of Love” is also a great example of other things that good imagery does, which is to use metaphors and similes to further amplify meaning. You get the feeling that most of what he’s writing about is a metaphor, and then you start to wonder if it’s possible that even that opening line is actually a metaphor for something else: perhaps the “fat man sitting on a little stool” is Springsteen’s way of describing the challenges of living in a relationship. It’s fun to wonder.
And in the end, good imagery does that — a lot! It makes you question what you’re seeing as you take in all the images the song lyric generates. You then realize that you can use the singer’s instrumental choices, modal choices, chords choices and more to help you understand those images. When imagery works, it makes songs fun to think about.
The best way to improve your use of imagery in songwriting is to find those lyricists that you like, and ask yourself what it is that you like about them. Learn from them. Analyze what they say, and how they say it. And then see what you can do to emulate their technique in your own writing.
Are you trying to make your lyrics more important in your songwriting process? This eBook can help: “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process.” Take advantage of this FREE offer.