An English Lesson

Sep01

There are two main worlds to the universe of lyrics: Reading and Listening. Listening should be of high importance, especially if you are the one performing this musically for people as a profession. But some believe lyrics must be crafted like literature to prepare it for listeners.

Today I will try to help those interested in expanding their songs more poetically by taking a trip back to high school (Oh no!). Throughout the rest of this article I will be going over poetic terminology and relating how it can be incorporated into songwriting. Let us start off with the big daddy of poetic concepts.

(Note: I will use the word “viewer” inside of this article to denote “reader/listener.” This edit was done so that I wouldn’t have to keep retyping “reader/listener.”)

The three major types of lyrics are

  • Communicable
  • Narrative
  • Ideal

Communicable is communicating a topic the author chooses with a third person. Narrative is a story and contains the basic concepts of a story: characters, plots, conflict, conclusion, etc, including other concepts or even editing some out. Ideal songs are songs that communicate with the viewer about a certain topic chosen by the author. Ideal songs are different from Communicable songs because they talk to the viewer, not to a third person.

Figurative language

This is sort of like the poet’s tool to create a special effect or feeling. Some of these tools include the metaphor, simile, personification, onomatopoeia, idioms, and other things that will be covered in the duration of this article. One thing that you probably will not find in the textbooks is something I call “root words.”

Root words are the primordial base of a given word. Let us take the two most repeated words in all of musical lyrics today: Pain and Love. In the English language there have been thousands of words created to replace these root words. These are synonyms, different words with similar meanings. This brings up the point of why it’s always an extremely helpful asset to have a dictionary and a thesaurus nearby.

Example:

“I walk through these mountains”

Compare this to:

“…as I wander these snow crested tops”

You can immediately notice the figurative language in this second line. It is compiled with almost all the elements in this article, leaving out only a few.

Imagery

This is language that appeals to the five senses: Touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. Imagery, for starters, expands those root words to be more specific. When we make our songs more poetic or artistic we wish to make them more detailed. Let’s take this line for example:

“I swerve, I sway, I speed to whirring sound an inch above the ground; I’m the sailor and the sail, I’m the driver and the wheel, I’m the one and only single engine human automobile.”

Imagery alters the scene to create a basic picture, even expanding on some. Imagery is what could be described as what occurs in our minds when we hear that specific word(s) in a certain context. In the above example, it gives a pretty straightforward image to the viewer. Imagery works to create a scene, which is highly important in narrative stories and also can be used to increase the detail of an object or a certain noun (person, place, thing or idea). Don’t exclude it from communicable or ideal songs either! It has great use in those as well.

Exaggeration

This is the obvious stretching of the truth, i.e., “Small as a peanut” or “Rich as a sultan.” The use of exaggeration in songwriting generally relates how something has become “more” or “less” of itself. Back in the forums, one of my good friends and Co-moderator, Reef, posted one of his songs. He and David Hodge ended up having discussions about the line

“Redness turns crimson”

The point came up first that the line was blank and never really expressed much to the viewer. We asked Reef what this truly meant to him and his response was that Red to him was rage, anger, blood, and many other destructive words. The only problem with this line was that it was unclear to the audience. “How does the audience know what your connotation of red means?” I asked him, and within the same post I said that he should have some imagery to exemplify what his emotional meaning of red is to a broader spectrum of people. So I suggested the line

“The red axe turns crimson”

Many people have seen axes in films and/or may take it as a weapon with red applied to it, red referring to blood. Although it would be better to have words like sword or knife fill the crack more permanently, axe works fine. Reef liked the idea and has since kept it.

Going back to exaggeration and my example, the newly refined line explains the view much more. Crimson is a slightly darker color than red and also a much fancier word. This all leads us, along with more imagery at our disposal, to make this line mean, “my rage/blood/anger/hate becomes worse/stronger/greater/bolder.”

Idioms

No, these are not the guys who bug you at work. It’s actually a little different. Idioms are common phrases or the common connotations that people have for words. Idioms cannot be understood by their literal or textbook meanings. A classic example of an idiom is the phrase “way to go” which generally means “good job.”

Allusions

Try not to confuse allusions with illusions. Allusions are words or lines that give reference to something historical or well known. Many of Shakespeare’s plays make references to gods that were commonly known back in his time. Even the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet includes an allusion to the god Venus and the well known Cupid.

“…Speak to my gossip Venus one fair word, one nick-name for her purblind son and heir, Young Adam Cupid, he that shot so trim…”

Allusions can also be well known pieces of information, such as the law of gravity. Most of you know what that is; that’s why it can be “well known.” This can be effective in musical lyrics to easily express commonly known ideals to create some more imagery relating to your topic or introduce a new element to your topic. Allusions are different from idioms, which are the common thought of what something is. Allusions are the commonly known denotation while idioms are the commonly known connotation.

Free Verse

These are poems or lyrics that are not written to a regular rhyme scheme, meter, or form. Free verse allows the writer to gain a much greater outlook on his work without having to work in the confines of rhyming. Although this can be done within the confines of rhyming, it’s usually easier to express imagery and thought without having to work within a border. That way, you let your words flow without much resistance and express your topic not only faster, but with greater detail. For example:

“Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

No form is present, except for the repetition of “Let the” at the beginning of each line. Instead, it allowed the writer to express his perception of rain with as much figurative language as possible, or as he pleased.

Repetition

Originally, if you saw the old archived forum when it was still up and noticed the majority of posts, you would have noticed from my reviews that I detested repetition in songs. But after awhile I finally changed my mind when I came across a book that acted much like this article. The book was a glossary of poetic terminology and one of the words was “repetition.”

Repetition is the use of any element of language — a sound, word, phrase, or sentence — more than once. I detested repetition in works because it commonly lead people into circles, explaining already explained themes and topics and discussing already discussed imagery and thoughts. Commonly repeating the chorus was yet another of these circles.

All these boiled down to one thing: they became annoying in the song and detracted from its quality. However, when used properly, repetition can become incredibly useful. Since these works are to be performed as well, repetition can build concepts. Using one kind of repetition, you can repeat your topic in other words near the end of a song without the viewer realizing it.

Here’s an example of a form of repetition in a famous poem by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven.”

“Once upon a midnight dreary
While I pondered weak and weary
Over many quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door
‘It is some visitor’ I muttered ‘tapping at my chamber door’”

Alliteration

This is the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginnings of several words of a line of poetry or a sentence. Literally, it’s a succession of similar sounds. This can extend throughout the song.

“There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground
And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;”

From my experience, alliterations work well for stressing ideas or concepts in the chorus, or anywhere, including just the simple line of a stanza. Stressing the consonant of the word gives greater importance to the meaning of the word.

Personification

Personification gives an animal, object or concept human or animal qualities. In narrative songs, personification helps add another character. When it comes to communicable and ideal songs, personification can loosen up the rigid feeling that something may have: a lion, for example, can personify a highly controversial topic.

Personifications can sometimes be seen as metaphors with lifelike qualities over direct comparisons. That is, instead of directly comparing a controversial topic to a lion, I make that controversial topic a lion. This gives the controversial topic lifelike qualities. The personification does not always have to be human.

Here’s another example:

“Summer grass aches and whispers.
It wants something; It calls and sings; It pours out wishes to the overhead stars.
The rain hears; The rain answers; The rain is slowly coming;
The rain wets the face of the grass.”

Onomatopoeia

This is the use of words that sound like the noise they describe. Again, this is a very good tool for enhancing the mood or feeling to a song. For example:

“Susie’s galoshes
Make splishes and sploshes
And slooshes and sloshes
As Susie steps slowly
Along in the slush”

Onomatopoeia can improve a visually oriented song by making the person “hear” for himself or herself instead of just seeing.

Metonymy

This is Greek for “name change,” and denotes a closely related word for something. For example, a crown is a metonym for a king, and a cane, a metonym for old age. Also, books are metonyms for knowledge. Metonyms work to give you a more abstract stance, while still stating your concrete thought.

So if I said, “Your knowledge is supreme,” I could use metonyms to enhance that to, “Your expansive collection of books is awe-inspiring.”

That’s a very free verse line, but it does make the point. The large collection of books can relate that the man holds great knowledge without being too direct.

Oxymoron

Oxymorons are interesting things. When placed properly, they can provoke the audience. For example, saying, “I’m happily sad” instantly makes the audience consider the line. It’s best to use oxymorons to stretch between the points of a controversial or two-sided topic. Normally oxymorons are impossible by fact, but not necessarily self-contradictory. An example of this is “darkness visible.”

Paradox

As opposed to an oxymoron, a paradox contains contradictory ideas. Ordinarily a paradox involves full ideas, not just individual words, such as the debate between evolution and creationism. (I’m standing neutral here for the sake of example and with respect to readers.) The two viewpoints here are contradictory and have very different precepts. Another example of a paradox is “the ascending rain.”

Simile

This is a comparison between two unlike things using the words like or as as conjunctions.

“It was as if the shadows were lifted off their walls”

Notice the “as if.” This is what makes a simile a simile. Similes are used to make the person visualize the object that is being related to.

“He was like a cheetah”

It allows the viewer to notice the exact meaning other than the many meanings that metaphors have. (This will be explained in the next topic.)

Metaphor

A metaphor is a direct comparison between two unlike things. It does not use like or as. Metaphors are useful for drawing an image that may be more direct to the viewer than a simile but less concrete.

“Your eyes are the sun that shone upon the youthful land.”

The above metaphors are the sun to symbolize the eyes (of one of the lovers), and the “youthful land” (the other lover). Metaphors enable you to project more intense pictures to the audience. One problem of improperly used metaphors is that some people won’t be able to understand your comparison.

Metaphors are also useful for making songs more interpretive. Similes can keep a song too concrete, but metaphors make the reader think abstractly. Making the reader think is something all great literature does. This includes philosophical and religious books, fairy tales, novels, mysteries, and others.

Try to make your metaphors limited and clear, like all other things in creating poetic music.

Symbol

A symbol is something that stands for something else. Metaphors and similes are comparative, but symbols are replacements. Metaphors are used for comparisons in direct relationships, but symbols are replacements of words. In the following example, the rock is a symbol.

“This is my rock
And here I run
To steal the secret of the sun;
This is my rock
And here come I
Before the night has swept the sky;
This is my rock,
This is the place
I meet the evening face to face.”

Mood

Mood is the feeling created in the reader by a poem or story. Figurative language and poetic concepts work together to create mood. Mood can be seen as the emotion the person feels when reading or listening to a song, or even a poem. Mood is useful for illuminating the feeling of the surroundings. In contrast, imagery simply explains with words, especially adjectives and adverbs, what is around you but with more details they all implant a ‘mood’ of the surrounding environment.

Tone

Tone is the attitude the writer takes toward the audience, subject, or a character. The voice, or speaker, is that character or perspective that is taken on by a writer or poem. This is often a voice not identified by name, although names can be applied.

“There’s this that I like about hockey, my lad;
It’s a clattering, battering sport.
As a popular pastime it isn’t half bad.”

Stanza

A stanza is any group of words, like a verse, chorus, bridge, etc. For arranging purposes, most stanzas are written as if they were paragraphs, explaining ideas in a group of words.

“Because I could not stop for death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The carriage held by just ourselves-
And immortality.”

Rhyme

Rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds. End rhyme is the repetition of similar sounds that come at the ends of lines in poetry. Internal rhyme occurs within a line when two words have similar sounds.

Rhyming can make songs flow along easier. However, don’t get caught up in rhyming. Those who do fail to express their ideas and focus more intently on the rhyming. Rhyming isn’t bad, but it shouldn’t be paid too much attention to.

“I think that many owls say Who-o;
At least the owls that I know do-o.
But somewhere when some owls do not-t
Perhaps they cry Which-h, Why-, or What-t.”

Rhyme Scheme

This is a repeated regular pattern of rhymes usually found at the end of lines in a poem or song.

“Isabel met an enormous bear,
Isabel, Isabel, didn’t care.”

Rhyme schemes are designed to match the meter as well. Songs that have rhyme schemes normally have the same scheme throughout the song. But, a scheme can transfer and change in a song among different stanzas.

Rhythm

The musical quality created by a pattern of beats. The beats are made of a series of stressed and unstressed syllables. Rhythm is a brother to meter, although rhythm can add a lot more to the song. For example:

“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, my foes, and oh, my friends-
It gives a lovely light!”

Meter

Meter is Greek for “measure.” Meter has a chart of certain levels, which won’t be covered here, in which the words can move. As to rhyming, meter is the measurement of syllables inside the lines. Specifically, it’s the stressing and unstressing of syllables inside the line. It’s closely related to rhyming in terms of measurement.

Clarification

This isn’t a poetic concept, although it can be seen throughout poetic works. It’s not documented or noted. I left this last since I felt poetic lyrics badly needed clarification to open the doors of the song to the viewer more widely. This way the viewer can be more interpretive and also be able to see your own concept. Sometimes writers will move their songs off more onto one side than another, which is still good.

The greatest point to look over when making your songs clearer to the viewer is that you have to be more specific. This means using a varied vocabulary, choosing between similes and metaphors, eliminating highly repeated words or lines, removing unnecessary conjunctions, and so forth.

Clarification can be seen as the tidying of the song’s final look. It also enhances the effect that the words have. If you are more specific and don’t have a lot of “mumbo-jumbo” in your work, then you will have more control over where the song is going. Steering the song where you want is always desired, but musicians leave this to their audience, whether lyrics are sung or read.

Accessibility to a song is always what makes it greater. If you can’t gain access to something, it’s generally useless other than to its creator(s). Songs are commonly played to audiences of people, and if those people can’t understand your song and have good access to it, there is a lost cause. Poems were often sung or spoken to others in the ages ago, giving them high reason to edit their works to be legible.

There is a great deal of people who play and write as a hobby, and I have nothing at all against this, but to those who perform, this is what you should have in your mind when you edit your works.

Closing Remarks

These explanations listed above should give you the bare essentials of writing poetic works. These are, in no way, the only way you can use them for songwriting purposes. Also, not all poetic terms were explained. Most of those that weren’t aren’t necessary.

If you wish to read more, follow a link to this Glossary of Poetic Terms. This is a full list of poetic terminology (from which some of my explanations partially came). Experiment with them and see what your lyrics can achieve. Sometimes adjusting poetic devices can lead to a higher flair in songs, almost as if the song’s style were your own.

I strongly suggest to anyone to play around with anything you wish. If you feel that more improvements should be made to fit your own tastes, then by all means do so. Music is a gift to the audience and to yourself!

Rock on and Happy writing!

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About Ryan Spencer

Californian born and raised, Ryan Spencer has been playing guitar for six years. Four of those years were spent studying luthiery under various apprenticeships, never staying too long with one teacher - although he did spend a great deal of extra time with his last teacher, who just recently moved away. Ryan is in the process of working to stabilize his custom guitar building services to other players. He is also one of the founding members of the band Void who actively gig and have 2 demo albums of their material on sale.

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