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)
There is, of course, the classic ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, which I dip into a few times a year, and has given me almost a decade of interesting insights. With that said, it also reveals the ways in which songwriters are much more oblivious to their craft than their counterparts in prose or poetry. There are so many references to being a ‘channel to the muse’ that it makes my muse want to shrivel up and take up chain-smoking.
With all of that said, there have a been two delightful books that came out in 2020 that are, I hope, forging a more honest and fertile ground for other songwriters to share the details of their practice.
I loved, and tried, his ‘word ladder’ exercise, which reminds me a lot of Pat Pattison’s metaphor collision exercises. The exercise basically involves having a column of nouns that are drawn from one area/field/room, and another column of verbs that are drawn from something totally unrelated. What I like about Tweedy’s version is the sense of freedom and experimentation in how to simply mix and match, with a loose brain:
“…take a pencil and draw lines to connect nouns and verbs that don’t normallyw ork together. I like to use this exercise not so much to generate a set of lyrics but to remind myself how much fun I can have with words when I’m not concerning myself with meaning or judging my poetic abilities.”
The exercises are fun, creative, and specific. But the real gems in here are the stellar insights into the creative process:
“One of the reasons I advocate so strongly for maintaining some creative pursuits in life is my belief that not knowing exactly how something like a finished song comes together creates an incredible magical feeling that always leaves me satisfied and full of wonder. There’s really no exact way to do it—it’s not like putting together IKEA furniture. It’s just about getting started on the right path.”
What I love about the book is that Tweedy is all about the wonder, but also about the nitty gritty of HOW you go about putting yourself on that path. I’m so glad he wrote it.
Many years ago, while living in LA, I heard a Big Shot Industry Dude (cue Beethoven’s 5th…) say:
“Songs shouldn’t have metaphors in them. I can’t think of a good song that has a metaphor.”
To my great relief, and with a giddy sort of rebellious delight, all of us songwriters gathered afterward, as if we all had sticky, sweet metaphors stashed in our pockets the whole time, and murmured things like “What was he talking about?”, or more generously, “Maybe he doesn’t know what a metaphor is…?”
I have come to think that it’s probably the latter. Metaphor, I am happy to report, is alive an well in songwriting, whether we’re talking about popular contemporary writing, or just beautiful writing in any era, any genre. Metaphor can be gently weaved into the fabric of a song, giving it glimmers of certain colors and textures as the song turns in the sun; or a song can be entirely based on one central metaphor, whose imagery completely defines the entire song.
Let’s take the first example here, ‘Rocket Science’, by Lori McKenna (and I could honestly talk for hours about the songwriting craft of Lori McKenna—she is amazing. If you want to know an album to ‘study’ the craft of songwriting, listen to ‘Numbered Doors’. Holy moly.) Here are the lyrics to the chorus:
Love is rocket science What comes up it must come down In burning pieces on the ground We watch it fall Maybe love is rocket science after all
The chorus itself starts out with the most direct statement of the central and primary metaphor of the whole song: love is rocket science. The first thing to note is that all the language in the chorus is related to rockets and science; every line here is an extension of that central metaphor. Once we’ve noticed that, we end up seeing it woven through the entire lyric. Here are the first two verses:
They say it ain’t complicated Any fool can understand Until the fuse is lit and It blows up in your hand
It all looks good on paper Step by step, you follow the plan In the sky watch the desperate vapor Til it blows up in your hand
The language in bold here is what Pat Pattison would call language ‘in the key’ of the metaphor. And the rest of the song has the same quality; the verses and bridge all contain language drawn from the palette of rockets, space, and science gone wrong.
But the far more important thing to notice is the very first line of the song, because it is the connection point between the metaphor and what the song is really about: “They say it ain’t complicated”. The point of the song is that love IS complicated, just like rocket science. This is where all the magic of metaphor happens: in the overlapping area between rocket science and love: IT IS COMPLICATED. IT CAN GO TERRIBLY WRONG. And finally…it’s still worth it in the end.
The reason this metaphor song works is because there is enough material in the overlap between the metaphor (rocket science) and the topic (love), and that is the key to a metaphor idea that has enough DNA to be the basis for an entire lyric. Some metaphors do not; they are interesting, descriptive and colorful—”her haircut was a church; she became sombre and restrained under its angles and spires”; “the conversation was a river; it flowed on the surface, but I was drowning in the undercurrent of tension”—but not expansive enough to describe a theme or topic for a whole song.
DESIGNING YOUR OWN DIRECT METAPHOR SONG
1. Pick one of the following themes or topics (or choose one of your own):
LOVE, WAR, LOSING A PARENT, AMBITION, GROWING UP, CLIMATE CHANGE, NOT GETTING WHAT YOU WANT, GETTING OLDER.
2. From the following list of nouns, try a number of ‘X is Y’ combinations.
Love is a traffic jam. Growing up is a spaghetti western. Climate change is a language.
Already your metaphor brain is buzzing with possibilities and ideas.
3. Taking your one metaphor, spend 5 minutes generating at least 5 different ‘connection points’, or ‘linking qualities’. That is: what are 5 different ways that your metaphor connects to your topic?
For example: Growing old is a church.
1. It is dark, empty, moldy, lonely…
2. It is bright, full of friends, and sacred…
3. It forces you to examine the life you have lived…
4. It becomes a mere recitation of habit…
5. It has a complex architecture…
A good metaphor song will have ONE MAIN connection point. There may be other related ways that you explore the connection, but they should be related to each other. So I wouldn’t be trying, in the same song, to say that growing old is both ‘dark and lonely’ as well as ‘bright and sacred’. I would pick one—the positive or the negative—and focus on that for this one song.
And then write another song that does the other one (!).
Pro tip: What you decide your ‘connection point’ is can help you to filter the language of the metaphor. For example, if I were using ‘ocean’ as a metaphor, with the connection point of it being ‘open, wide, adventurous’, then I might end up with words like:
5. Spend 10 minutes exploring your topic (growing up) using language in the key of the metaphor.
Try to explore the nooks and crannies of your topic by being specific, situational and personal. You are on the lookout for unusual and unexpected ways that connect your metaphor and your topic, so go exploring!
Growing old is a church—as my grandmother grew into her last years, her body became a complex architecture of illness; its sharp edges thrusting through her veins and cells; her mind became a dusty hallway that echoed with ghosts…etc. But the building is not the belief. Her body was sick, but she was more than just the creaking doors and echoing halls. The knowledge, wisdom, and experience of her life had been transmitted out to us, her family, and I can still recite the lessons learned, like passages from a sacred text…etc
6. Build a Chorus idea, using an ‘X is Y’ statement.
It may turn out that your ‘X is Y’ metaphor statement is not your first, primary metaphor that you started with, but something more interesting that emerged in Step 5. For example, my chorus might be built on this ‘X is Y’ idea (or in this case ‘X is NOT Y’):
She is more than creaking doors
Her life is louder than these empty halls…
A great example of this is Belief, by John Mayer. The primary metaphor of the song is something like “belief is a war,” but we never hear that statement. What we do hear are the secondary, or related, metaphors that use language ‘in the key’ of war:
Is there anyone who really recalls Ever breaking rank at all For something someone yelled real loud one time?
Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword Like punching underwater You never can hit who you’re trying for
[belief is] the chemical weapon For the war that’s raging on inside
Note that these are mostly verse lyrics, but the idea can be applied to verses or choruses.
I will also write another post soon that gives a lot more detail about writing great Choruses, as well as what makes chorus lyrics and ideas different to verses. Speaking of verses…
7. Build Verse ideas.
Use your favorite ideas and imagery to construct your verses. Just remember: The key to great Direct Metaphor songs is that the metaphor is clear. We know what the metaphor is, and we know what the topic is too. Metaphor isn’t an excuse to be vague. It’s a way to be even more specific and clear about how you want to explain how something feels. So make sure that you are still being clear about what the situation is, what you’re actually talking about, and how you feel about it.