by Robin Frederick Check out Robin’s books at Amazon.com.
Using an image is like opening a door into your listener’s head. It’s impossible not to see a mental picture when we hear an image word. If I say ‘rain’, you picture rain. But that’s not all that happens. Along with that picture of rain, come all the associations you have with it: grey skies, the physical sensation of humidity, cozy indoors, cold and wet outdoors.
Images don’t arrive alone. They’re always accompanied by related images, ideas, sensations, and experiences. Think of it as a family that stays together.
Use an image family
As a songwriter, you can use this family to your advantage. While you can’t control all of the responses to an image your listener will have, there are plenty of shared associations you can count on. Associations like these add depth and richness to your lyric with no extra effort on your part. Play with them, use them to underscore your theme, you can get a lot of bang for your buck with an image that’s got a big family.
Watch out for conflicts
Be on the lookout for images with associations that conflict with your theme or with each other. These can create a distraction that drags your song down. If the singer is driving “a flashy pink Cadillac” with its suggestion of ego and impulsiveness, it will be difficult for us to believe he’s also “the salt of the earth” or “dependable as the rising sun.” Your listeners will end up spending a lot of time trying to reconcile these two sets of images instead of listening to your song.
This is an extreme example, of course; look for more subtle occurrences where one image is undermining another. Of course, it’s fine to have contrasting images if you want to demonstrate the difference between two people or things.
Using familiar images
A phrase like “I’m a prisoner of your love,” can work for and against you. The image of a ‘prisoner’ has a lot of associations with it that might add depth to your theme, but it’s been so overused that listeners don’t ‘see’ it anymore. To make an image like this work for you, freshen it up by varying the image itself: “Your love is holding me hostage.” Or, give us a new insight or twist on the image in the surrounding lines: “I’d give up my freedom to become / a prisoner of your love.”
DO IT NOW – Choose one of the images below. Make a list of related images, emotions, sensations, and ideas that you associate with that image. Write a verse or chorus using the image and some of your related ideas.
- A happy couple holding hands
- Children playing in the snow
- A warm summer night
- A lone figure walking on a beach
- A family dinner
- Being caught in a storm
- A garden with an empty bench
- Waiting in a train station
- Driving down a lonely highway (See Tim McGraw’s “Highway Don’t Care” for ideas.)
- Wild horses running across the prairie
- …or choose any image that interests you.