Every songwriter loves metaphors. That or people literally want to give their hearts to their crush, which is slightly more disturbing.
But what makes a metaphor shine, how can you set yourself apart from other writers with your use of metaphors? That’s what we will talk about now!
WARNING: The following article is on writing style, not necessarily on how to write commercial lyrics. Using the following techniques will make you a better writer and it will help you connect with your audience. However, you won’t find these principles used in pop music, which is less focused on lyrics to start with. To find out why, check out this article on storytelling. Of, if you’re interested in what modern, commercial lyric-writing looks like read this article on 3 Outdated Lyric-Writing Techniques You’re Still Using.
1. Make ‘em Felt
This point can not be emphasised enough: First and foremost, a great metaphor needs to be felt. And there is no better way to make someone feel something as when in their head they believe they are really there.
So in your choice of words, use all of the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell & touch (plus kinaesthetic).
Don’t tell me “she’s gone” – that’s abstract and unemotional (and on top of that we’ve heard it a gazillion times before).
Tell me how you’re still making coffee for two. Tell me how you’re missing the wrinkles in the sheets on her side of the bed when you wake up. Tell me how the house is starting to smell since she was always the one who took care of the trash cans (Note: More on how to write lyrics to a love song here).
In these examples coffee, bed sheet wrinkles and bad smells are metaphors for her being gone. From there, you can easily take it to a new level:
The coffee one could be a song about how you’ve banned her from your mind but your body still doesn’t get it (You’re off my mind / still a part of me didn’t get the message). You could also add a spin on how coffee wakes up the body, something like Seems my body’s still dreamin’ of you and even coffee won’t help it wake up. Btw, the original lyrics went:
I still make coffee for two / I’m not used to you not being around / I can’t sleep at night because of you / but then again, could be the coffee, too.
(Edit: “I still make coffee for two” is technically not a metaphor and thank you Armistice for pointing this out to me. I am using the term “metaphor” in the sense of “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” here.)
The wrinkles could be coming back in different ways throughout your song: How you wanted to grow old with her and see her face all wrinkly. How happy you could’ve made her (laugh lines). And how she ironed out (hint: good song title) that future.
The one about not taking out the trash I’ll leave to you 😉
In short: Pull me into your world and show me what it’s really like to be in your shoes (ouch! bad metaphor – we’ll talk about this one in just a second!).
2. Make ‘em Specific
The more abstract the metaphor, the less grip it has. “I give you my heart” is a weak metaphor because it doesn’t create strong, emotional images in your head.
But if you told me you would cut open your chest and present your beating heart on a bloody silver platter that sure would make me go “blimey” (I’m British in this part of the story).
Ok, that might be an extreme example (and this would be the point where my girlfriend stops reading) – but it shows how any lame metaphor can be turned into a live, breathing one by being specific.
Take the “walk in your shoes” example: Make me feel the asphalt through your permeated soles. Show me gravel caught between your toes. Show me black feet from rubber flip flops. Show me what’s REALLY going on.
The better your observations, the more you’ll have your audience. Whenever you think: “I’m probably the only person in the world who knows what I’m talking about here” – that’s usually the best kind of observation, because…
…only few others have already written about it,
…those people who DO know what you mean – and let’s face it you can’t be the only one who knows what you’re talking about – will have an incredibly strong emotional connection with you.
…those who don’t know what you mean will still be able to enjoy a lively set of words. “Black feet from rubber flip flops” is very specific and I’m sure not a whole lot of people know what I mean by it. But those that do will instantly feel a connection towards me and those that don’t still get to enjoy an interesting phrase they haven’t heard anywhere else before.
Again, the trick is to zoom in. Show me the details. That’s where the magic is – in music AND in lyrics.
3. Make ‘em Clear
A lot of songwriters struggling with this one, let me tell ya.
It occurs to me that most songwriters who are into writing deep, emotional lyrics are by nature rather introverted. And a lot of these introverted folks tend to shy away from clear, bold statements. It almost seems to me like hiding behind vague words as a way of protecting yourself.
I have my fair share of introversion so I can understand that perfectly. Hell, most of my first lyrics were so unspecific you could’ve read them a million ways. And some songwriters like that. They want every listener to have their own idea of what the song is about.
Problem: This goes wrong when you have a really great topic to write about. I have read so many lyrics that didn’t mean ANYTHING to me other than a culmination of words until I talked to the songwriter. “Yeah, I thought this means that and this line is because in 3rd grade I had a teacher and…”
We are not you. We don’t know what you’re thinking. If you want us to understand you, follow you wherever you want to take us, if you want us to feel what you want us to feel… be clear!
Metaphors shouldn’t blur your message, they should amplify it!
A couple of years ago I was asked for my opinion on a metal lyric. It went something like “the world is pitch black / now that you’re gone / trying to find you in the darkness / but you’re too far away”… yada yada yada, stuff like that, you know the drill. Makes for good grunting.
So what is this song about? Your girlfriend left you, everything has lost its color and you can’t get back together? Or did the sun go down and that’s why everything is grey? Did Coca Cola take off the red labels and you’re singing aboutt how frustrated you are that the bottle of your favorite non-alcoholic beverage has lost all color?
Ok, obviously this is a song about death. You probably guessed it the second I said “Metal”. But that’s not the point. The lyrics to this song are interchangeable. Words like “pitch black”, “gone”, “darkness”, “far away” are so unspecific that all meaning is lost when they are brought together. We still don’t know what happened. Did his bunny die? And yet, 90% of all “dark” lyrics I read sound exactly like this!
Give me something to hold on to. If you want to write about death, better give me some emotional power words that take me into your world. Show me what grief feels like. Show me what it tastes like, looks like, and yes, smells like.
Here’s a couple of lines I wrote about death a couple of years ago:
“breath turns into groove and decrescends into a sigh / turns and twists, not much unlike a dance that slowly dies / this patient dance of mine”
See how that deals with a very real struggle by giving it something you can relate to?
QUESTIONS & ACTIONS:
- Give us an example of one of these 3 techniques from your own writing
- Which of these techniques do you use / have you not used yet? What are your thoughts?
- What is your favourite metaphor from a song you haven’t written?
Songwriting Coach & Composer
With recommendations from industry heavyweights Erwin Steijlen (Pink, Shakira), Conrad Pope (John William’s orchestrator), Jeff Rona (God of War III, Traffic) and Rene Merkelbach (Within Temptation), Friedemann started his songwriting/producing school Holistic Songwriting in November 2015.