In this video, I show you how to write songs—and specifically lyrics—like Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and John Mayer. There is a particular type of song and songwriting that these three songwriters have in common—it’s a way to write songs that lots of songwriters use: metaphor songs. I start by defining metaphor, and share the principles and methods for creating original ideas, and furnishing them with great lyrics, just like these songwriters.
Want to write your own original lyrics? AUGUST 25/26 2022 – LIVE ONLINE METAPHOR WRITING WORKSHOP. Join in here!
Studying and understanding the tools that go into making a song can help anyone learn how to write a song more effectively. I hope these conversations give you ideas for your own songs and songwriting.
We were lucky enough to have a long conversation with Berklee Professor Pat Pattison. But was my teacher and mentor at Berklee, and eventually my colleague and friend. Studying Pat’s material transformed my songwriting practice – it gave me a tools and techniques to draw on to develop ideas into full songs, to understand the relationship of sections, and most importantly, to understand how structure can amplify meaning.
In this video series, Pat takes us through the elements of lyric writing – and demonstrates how making decisions about the structure and placement of lyrics can amplify the meaning and emotions we are trying to convey. Motion creates emotion.
The first exercise I run in any lyric writing class is called ‘Sense Writing,’ which is essentially the same as Pat Pattison’s Object Writing (which you can find out more about here). I’ve written before about Sense Writing, and recently put out a YouTube video that explains it, which you can watch here:
It’s one of my top ‘go to’ methods for getting a song idea going, for finding out what I have to write about (even when I’m not starting out with any specific ideas), and also one of my go-to ways of fleshing out ideas for lyrics when I DO have an idea on the go.
I thought it would be a useful reference to also post some examples of what my Sense Writes look like (though there is no stylistic requirement here—the only parameter is to stay sense-bound, and push yourself to turn the dial up on the level of detail), and then to show you how one of the Sense Writes might then translate into lyrics. Here we go!
Sense Writing Examples
"Destitute funeral", the woman's voice over the phone had a quiver in it as she said the words. I could suddenly feel the sweat of my ear moistening the plastic screen protector of my phone. I didn't realise that ears sweat. A small baby fist of tension opened and shut at my larynx, a trigger of righteous outrage flared somewhere in my stomach. That word, 'destitute'. t conjured images of grey dread locks with rat shit in them, and urine-soaked cardboard boxes. Or perhaps of wailing orphans, or dustbowl leather-skinned cowboys and grey-wood furniture piled onto the front of yellow grassed lawn, rusty nails sticking out. Of nameless locals driving by in their pickups, narrowing their eyes to a slit, glaring at you with sharp shadows, one hand on the wheel, the other hand on the car door, window rolled down, a lop-sided cigarette precariously leaning of the cliff of their lip. Destitute was curled lips, snarling facial gestures, stuck in an ice-wall of silence."Oh ok, that's what they call it then. A 'destitute funeral," I murmured back to the social work woman on the other end of my iPhone. "Yes, sorry. I don't know why they call it that..." Well, I do. They call it that so that you feel this barrage of guilt and shame, and social knuckle to the solar plexus, because they don't want just everybody to know that it's not actually necessary to pay a company the extortion of $5000 to simply burn a body.
One thing I like to do shortly after a Sense Write is to mine it for interesting lines and ideas, and put them in a separate document. Here’s what I extracted from this:
a lop-sided cigarettes
The sand beneath her toes makes a squeak like a mouse, like rubber, hot wheels on tarmac. It is warm but only on the surface. As her toes displace the upper crust, beneath is moist, darker sand, cooler, more secretive; earth's clay, more maleable, shapable, building castles and caves and channels for water to run, for worlds to emerge, for princes and princesses and dragons to suddenly burst into life, for the all powerful narrator to dictate outcomes, controlling tiny imaginary lives. Small, frail, hapless characters wrapped up in a fiction they don't even know exists; one swipe and the castle explodes, shards of sand hurling through the air, walls collapsing, the moat imploding, the water channel driven to chaos, spreading back into the dark sand beneath, joining with the waves that lick the shoreline and then sigh back into the vast glittering sapphire of sea. Salt and seaweed and hot chip fry. She abandons the narrative, and looks out into the blue, where the blue gradient gets almost black as it reaches for the horizon. Out at the edge of the water world, the line is not straight, but it's hard to even get a hold on. The horizon line quivers out there, a nervous distance, the arc of the earth actually visible if your imagination comes to stand next to you. The line out there shimmers, a magic portal, another world at the drop off, where gravity might make a mistake and flick you into space, or drag you down.The water imitates the sand. The top inch is warm, but as the sand slimes upward of the ankle, the water becomes cold, bracing, sticking to the surface of the skin, gripping goose flesh. The body responds with a frantic reciprocity, shifting its temperature to meet the embrace, trying to match the strength of the handshake.Her chest contracts, heart a little mouse in a cage suddenly submerged, quick gasp for air as the cold vice surrounds the shoulders, but the body somehow knows the water, and within mere seconds the borderline between skin and sea is gone.
Here I’ve just bolded the lines and ideas I was immediately drawn to afterwards.
You just don't know how good what you have is as a kid.2 storey art deco house. Caramel coloured carpet, but for two kids, it was a place to roll around in, to lie down laughing, grasping at our bellies, wheezing laughter through tears. It was a place for me to put on my parents' records: Janis Joplin, Muddy Waters, Donovan, Chuck Berry, turn on the gas heater in the winter - tick tick floooommmff! - and thrash my limbs around, spin my body til my mind entered the music and the music fused with my blood and we were one swirling whirl, one smoke curl burning,one small house on fire, dancing like there was nothing else.My room painted sky blue, then layered over in lilac. My room ha da door leading out to the top deck vernadah. On summer night, I would straddle my dad, and he would tell me stories. I could feel his voice in my legs, I could feel the bass rumbling in his guts. The Corkscrew Ballerina! His belly button was the animation of her legs leaping, until her own pirouhette overtook her, She spun and spun until she burned a hole in the ground and fell straight through the floor!I would squeal in anticipation and delight, somehow still ravaged by the tension, even though I'd heard the story 10 times before.Until one telling - some fuse in my brain rewired itself away from childhood delight, and simply short-circuited. The tension blinked out in an instant, and the story no longer had the same power over me. I knew it was a story, could not suspend the disbelief any more. AS if cynicism just blooms one day like an algae that takes over the whole river in a day. As if knowledge (becomes understanding) somehow means defeat. The defeat of delight.Our backyard was big enough to build speed on a bike. We would pick lilipillies in late winter, and catch stink bugs in summer. I would watch the bees praying at each purple jacaranda bell, their religiosity habitual and efficient, each prayer finished with thanks.
Turning a Sense Write into Lyrics
Here is a Sense Write, followed by a lyric idea I have drawn out of it. Notice how I am pulling together words and sounds that have a sense of sonic connection, and obviously adding in structural elements that help something sound like a lyric: rhythm, rhyme, a consistent number of lines per section, etc.
wicker baskets, bric a brac, nick knacks, garage sale. old paperbacks, dog-eared, year yellowed, brown framed pages blending to cream. old bits of metal, nails, screws, rust sprinkled, once useful, now objects without a purpose. old toys wrapped up in plastic bags. a once-pink teddy, now sun bleached and frayed. an old woman sitting under a hawaiian umbrella, smoking a cigarette like it's the 80s, with cigarette smoke curling around her fingers, snaking through her hair, and shrouding the air just above her in tufts of white. the crackle of the nicotine between her lips. lip stick seeping into the small cracks and canyons of her old lips. the radio on next to her, an old black and tan wireless, the antenna cocked at an uncanny angle, leaning hard to the left like an old man leaning on a wall. the fire crackle of an AM station. edith piaf warbling, beach boys crooning. i can't find what i'm looking for, as if you come to a garage sale with a purpose...and a small but laden grey cloud suddenly sprouts above us. it starts to rain lightly, but the old smoking lady is still sun-bathed, her smoke now overlaid by a romantic sparkle of silver rain, glittering in the sunshine. i can now see that she was once a total babe. the sinews of her arms were once smooth surfaces curving gracefully at angles - clean elbow, the precipitous shelf of a collar bone. those lips once drew attention to themselves, when the smoke would cascade out like a slow-exposure waterfall. and i see her dancing, by herself, holding a glass of wine, standing at a window, the reflection of herself superimposed onto a night dotted by the candles of light from the town below. her reflection adding beauty to the scene, as music filled the room, traced over her shoulders, brushed her hair, and laid its fingers on her collarbones. now she is selling everything.
…you have to strip your writing down before you can build it back up. You must know what the essential tools are and what they were designed to do. Extending the metaphor of carpentry, it’s first necessary to be able to saw wood neatly to drive nails. Later you can bevel the edges or add elegant finials, if that’s your taste. But you can never forget that you are practising a craft that’s based on certain principles. If the nails are weak, your house will collapse. If your verbs are weak and your syntax is rickety, your sentences will fall apart.
For songwriters, we are tasked with building mansions in the mind of a listener on limited real estate. Each word must be necessary, otherwise it’s a loose nail. Often the right choice of an image, expressed simply and clearly, is so much more charged with emotion than verbal ornament.
As Jeff Tweedy says in “How to Write One Song”,
An “impatient red fiery orb loomed in the whiskey-blurred, cottony-blue sky” is rarely going to hit me anywhere near as hard as “I was drunk in the day.”
When I teach lyric writing, the first concept I introduce in any class is the power and impact of sense-based language. I usually start with a sort of psychological magic trick: I read a list of words, then ask people to recall as many as they can. Without mentioning this to the class, I have deliberately made half the words concrete and sense-based—koala, tomato, thunder—and the other half are abstract or conceptual—task, idea, sound, for example.
Here is the magic part: without fail, the vast majority of people (about 90%) recall more of the sense-based words.
How is this possible? Why isn’t it more random? Why don’t we see, over a large sample, that it’s more like 50%? I randomise the words; I make sure the words are not more complex in one category versus the other…the magic (and science) here is that there is something special about sense-based language. Our brains wrap themselves differently around it. In the field of psychology, this has a name: “The Concreteness Effect”. People’s memories (and here we’re talking at a population level) stick like glue to things we can attach our senses to.
As lyric writers, we are tasked with creating mansions in the mind of a listener with very limited real estate, so anything in language that comes pre-loaded with emotion, impact, and connection is gold.
Here’s a dirty little secret though. I have, for years, been a bit tripped up by the logic of this. Just saying “cinnamon” is not the same thing as actually smelling cinnamon…a word is a concept, even if it’s describing a sensory thing…isn’t it? Why should we expect that sensory language isn’t actually just another kind of concept? Why believe (even in spite of the hundreds of mini-experiments I’ve run, yielding the same result, and even all the experiments done by psychologists) that sensory language should have a different emotional impact than any kind of language?
Well! I am very thrilled that science has once again come to the party, gotten tipsy, had a snog with art, and the two are now dirty dancing, showing us how one moves the other.
“demonstrated how words can rub and burn just as much as they can soothe. Test subjects lying in an MRI machine were read metaphorical and literal descriptions—the operation went smoothly (the operation went successfully), his manners are coarse (his manners are rude), she is a bit edgy (she is a bit nervous)…The results were conclusive: textured metaphors caused the brain to react as if it were being touched.”
Our brains aren’t just processing these words as language—mere concepts, solely representations of the thing; the brain actually responds as if that sense is being activated!
The power and complexity of language never ceases to astonish me. There is magic in there too. To quote, perhaps, the leading authority on words and magic:
Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.
Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2)
One of the most incisive essays I have ever read on the art of writing is the short and stunning piece, ‘Politics and the English Language‘, written by George Orwell in 1947. Here, Orwell described a cliche as a ‘dying metaphor’. Orwell follows up with a succinct list of guides to follow:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
If it hasn’t crossed your desk yet, I highly recommend it. You can access it here.
I have a public confession to make. I have a serious problem—a profound weakness, and it only gets worse with age.
I am completely, totally, helplessly in love with reading. But not just one book. I find myself embroiled, entangled, enmeshed, ensnared, and ensnarled in reading sometimes more than 10 books at a time. It’s not healthy. If I read one at a time, I could probably read more in a year. But I can’t. It doesn’t work like that.
I now play mental tricks with myself to justify the habit, creating different ‘categories’ of books. It started out simple: Fiction and Non-Fiction. And then I started reading books about writing. Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Writing. And then I picked up a few on interesting psychology research: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Writing, and Psychology (sub-category, Non-Fiction). Next came books not just on writing, but on specific grammar and style. Fiction, Non-Fiction (sub-category: Psychology, and also Science snuck in there somehow), Writing (sub-category, grammar and style). And then Poetry. And then Short Stories. And, um, Krista Tippett (maybe, Books by Podcasters?).
I feel good now, though. I feel lighter that I’ve let you know about my problem. Maybe I can add a few more books now that I’ve shed the weight of this secret…
In the spirit of National Book Week, I am going to post the 5th sentence on page 56 of each of the books I’m currently reading:
If you ask someone to recall a seemingly random assortment of words verbatim, starting with the first word— “was smelled front that his the peanuts he good hunger eating barely woman of so in could that him contain”—the average person will remember only the first six of those words. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.
“When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not in the story.” On Writing, Stephen King.
I have never felt so terrible. Tenth of December, George Saunders.
“I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.”” Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett.
I could settle on nothing. House of Light, Mary Oliver.
That man was Tycho Brahe. Cosmos, Carl Sagan.
From the people comes political support or opposition; from the public comes artistic appreciation or commercial patronage. The Elements of Style, Stunk and White.
Better yet, the genetic sequences could be recorded by feeding samples into machines, taking the DNA strands apart one base pair at a time, and preserving them as strings of data that could easily be archived and replicated. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson.
I was kindly invited by Soren Trampedach and Work Club Global, in collaboration with the Sydney-based organisation Affectors, to present an information session on some of the craft and process of a songwriter and musician. The audience were entrepreneurs and culture creators. The discussion that came about found fascinating interplays between language in song and language in all types of communication.
An excerpt is provided below, but you can read the whole article and listen to the discussion by clicking HERE.
Keppie played with language, testing us all on our ability to recall certain words, she shared the theory and the practice of song craft and she played some beautiful indie folk tunes that were open to interpretation.
And in the space of 2 hours, relaxing on a lounge enjoying wine and cheese, I learned three business relevant insights:
1. We must show people what we mean, rather than tell them, even if it’s with their imagination. We can do this by painting a picture with words that our audience can relate to.
2. Sense based language is far more memorable than task orientated words. When I talk about a strategy and use words like ‘approach’ and ‘task’ they don’t stay in the mind as easily as nouns (Keppie proved this with an audience participation experiment). So I’m going to re-evaluate my language and look to bring more colour to ‘strategic dialogue’ in future.
3. Evocative words, memorable language, losing yourself in the music – all of these create an experience in music that’s carefully crafted around notes, but also silences, pauses and spaces. We can be afraid of silence and so keen to fill it – but what if we don’t? What if we allow people to create meaning and to connect with us in the same way they connect with a piece of music. Wouldn’t this allow us to have far more interesting relationships?