Let’s say you’re in love with someone and you want to let that person know how you feel. You could simply walk up to them and say, “I love you.” That might work. Or you could make an effort to create the right surroundings: a walk along the beach, holding hands on a summer evening under a twilight sky and, as the moon rises and hangs like a giant disco ball in the sky, you whisper “I love you.”
Without a doubt, the second option seems more likely to convey your “I love you” message convincingly. And while it’s not guaranteed to make the other person love you in return, as a songwriter it’s definitely going to give your listeners a better chance to feel what you’re feeling and believe you really are in love! And that’s what songs are all about.
Make listeners feel what you feel
When you describe an experience in a way listeners can see, hear, and touch, you draw them into the experience: they picture the beach at sunset, feel the warm air, and hear the words that are spoken. They’re involved in your situation without even thinking about it. Using the physical senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste – to convey emotions is much, MUCH more effective than simply telling your audience what you feel. Here’s how you do it.
=> Use images to evoke emotions
Many images come with emotional associations. When Simon & Garfunkel sing: “I am a rock, I am an island” we understand what they mean. The singer isn’t actually, physically a rock or an island. Instead, these images are used to express the isolation and stony silence the singer is feeling.
Take a look at the lyrics to “I Am a Rock” and you’ll see more instances of visual images being used to call up an emotional response in the listener: “winter’s day,” “deep and dark December,” “silent shroud,” “snow,” and “fortress.” Once listeners take in all these images, they can feel what the singer is feeling – cold, dark, isolated, alone. This is how good songwriters get listeners involved, get them to identify with the singer, even one as alienated as this one. It’s so much more effective than simply saying “I’m feeling really unlovable and sorry for myself today.”
When the singer Lorde uses images in her hit song “Royals,” she conveys a feeling of dismissive disdain as she paints a picture of the louche materialism of today’s celeb-royalty. The pre-chorus is a wonderful visual list of dicey over-indulgence: “gold teeth,” “ball gowns,” “diamonds,” “jet planes,” “tigers on a gold leash.” When Lorde and her friends turn their backs on it all – “We don’t care / We’re not caught up in your love affair” – it’s so much more emotionally compelling and credible than just saying they’re not into materialism.
Try it: Choose an emotion: happiness, love, trust, fear, suspicion, joy, grief. Make a list of images that express that feeling for you. Try writing a few lyric lines around some of those images to see how it works.
=> Use the physical experience of emotions
Emotions are physical things – that’s probably why they’re called “feelings.” We actually feel them in our bodies. In the song “Almost Lover,” the artist A Fine Frenzy uses a whole range of physical sensations to give the listener a full sense-surround experience. Take a look at the lyrics to “Almost Lover” and you’ll find four of the five senses in the very first verse.
Touch – “Your fingertips across my skin,”
Sight – “The palm trees swaying in the wind / Images…”
Hearing – “You sang me Spanish lullabies
Taste – “The sweetest sadness…”
The more senses you use to describe a scene, an emotion, or a situation, the more you put the listener right in the middle of things.
For another great example of sense-involvement, read the lyrics to “Smile” by Uncle Kracker. The chorus of this song is a catchy, creative list of the physical effects of falling in love: You make me smile like the sun / Fall out of bed / Sing like a bird / Dizzy in my head / Spin like a record / Crazy on a Sunday night… and it keeps on going. I don’t think it’s possible to listen to this song without smiling and feeling just a little bit in love!
Try it: Use the list of images you started above and add more sense-related words and phrases. Add the touch, sounds, smell, and taste the emotion suggests to you. Don’t leave a word or phrase off because you think it doesn’t make sense. If it occurs to you in connection with another word, go ahead and write it down.
Many words come with a family of images, action words, emotions, catch phrases, and ideas that listeners associate with it. I call this “baggage.” Words with baggage can be very useful because when you use one, it “unpacks” into a whole load of meanings and feelings for the listener. You can follow this trail to create entire sections of lyrics.
Turn your word lists into a lyric
Choose one or more of the words or phrases in the list you made and use it in the opening line of a verse or chorus. For instance, let’s say that my list of words describes the physical feeling of being in love. It includes “flying,” “floating,” and “lighter than air.” And those words suggest images of a bird, a balloon, and a kite. My list is much longer than that, of course. It goes on to include: heart, heartbeat, life, happy, bright, sunshine, sunny day, blue sky picnic, and more.
I could start my lyric with “Floating like a big blue balloon ” because “floating” was on the list of words that describe how love makes you physically feel and “balloon” and “blue sky” were associated images that came up for me. I had “sunshine” on my list, so next I might try… “Shining like the sun on the end of a string.”
Now I’m picturing this balloon/sun tied to someone’s heart. I like that image so I’ll use that. “Tied to your heart, whenever you’re around. Rising light as air, off of the ground.”
The “around/ground” rhyme was a little gift, so I’ll keep it for now but don’t worry too much about rhyming. Just keep building your images and sensations. As you think of more, add them to your lists and use them as needed.
You don’t need to put an image or physical sensation in every line. Keep your lyric conversational and natural sounding. But drop in an image, action, or example often enough to let your listeners know what the emotion feels like so they can experience it themselves.
This is great raw material to build a song on, and an important component of effective lyric writing. Go ahead and choose an emotion. Make your own word lists based on it and try to rough out a chorus or verse.
by Robin Frederick
All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.