Supercharge your lyrical dexterity with glittering descriptions.
Grammarly says “A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.”
Basically, a metaphor means using words to describe something in a non-literal way.
The clouds were pregnant with rain.
The clouds can’t actually be pregnant, but the use of the word conjures up images of (with sincere apologies to any pregnant ladies that might be reading!) bulging bellies, carrying additional weight, and being ready to drop.
His eyes burned into me.
Someone’s eyes cannot literally burn you, but already you feel the impression of someone’s stare being hotly intense, to the point of making you uncomfortable.
Metaphors are critical in songwriting, for two main reasons:
- Particularly in pop music, where the form and song length is often clearly defined, there is limited space to make your point. We’re not writing a book, and don’t have the space to go into long descriptions. A metaphor can quickly paint a picture in a few words and help the songwriter explain things that would take paragraphs using only literal descriptions.
- Uniqueness – the best songwriters strive to avoid cliches and create their own new metaphors, and through this they develop their own voice. Metaphors can reveal your inner monologue, how you feel about someone or something, in a way that literal descriptions will struggle to.
Here some great examples from modern songwriters:
Ellie Goulding – “Holding On For Life”
You and me just
Running towards the light
Giving up the fight
Hoping we survive
You and me just
Strangers in the night
Giving up the fight
Waiting to ignite
Holding on for life
Here in the chorus of Holding On For Life, Ellie is using a life and death struggle as a metaphor for her relationship.
OneRepublic – “If I Lose Myself”
You can feel the light start to tremble,
Washing what you know out to sea.
You can see your life out the window tonight.
The pre-chorus of If I Lose Myself contains several metaphors which add a tremendous other worldy quality to this song. Light cannot literally tremble, what’s in your head cannot literally be washed out to see, and you can’t literally see your life through a window.
But, these descriptions – trembling, washing out to see, envisaging your whole life from a distance – conjure up an impression of movement (driving the listener forward towards the chorus, the number one job of a pre-chorus) and also of a loss of control, which is the perfect setting for the chorus to launch: “If I lose myself tonight…”
Halsey – “Colors”
You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise
You’re spilling like an overflowing sink
You’re ripped at every edge but you’re a masterpiece
And now you’re tearing through the pages and the ink
I’m a huge fan of Halsey’s use of language, and here in the pre-chorus of Colors she displays a beautiful use of poetic lyricism. The first two lines here are actually similes, which are a type of metaphor using the word “like” to make a direct comparison.
Kelly Clarkson – “Someone”
So this is my apology
For saying all those shitty things
I wish I didn’t really mean
I’m sorry, I’m not sorry
You had your red flags up and raised
More traffic than east LA
But I drove in anyway
My common sense on holiday
People fall out of phase, we were a crash course
We will just be a place stuck on your passport
You traveled to sometime
But I hope you will find
Someone to cry for, someone to try for
Someone to turn your crooked roads into her streets
Someone to fight for, someone to die for
Someone whose arms will hold you tight enough to be
The reason you breathe
Be the reason you breathe
I’ve included the whole of the first verse and chorus of Kelly Clarkson’s Someone for context, and because I think this is lovely wordsmithery. The first metaphor here is “You had your red flags up and raised”, followed by the extended traffic metaphor “More traffic than east LA, But I drove in anyway”, then a final metaphor to finish it “My common sense on holiday”.
The song then cascades through several more metaphors into the chorus, which turns more literal, except for the line “someone to turn your crooked roads into her streets”. This line sings out because of it’s underlying sentiment – did Kelly mean that the subject of the song is difficult to navigate, or slightly warped? Is this a slight dig, or just a throwaway line? There’s probably only one person on the planet that can answer that, but this is the fun of metaphors – they allow the listener to bring their own interpretation to the party, and as a result the song can mean many different things to many different people.
I hope this brief look at the use of metaphors in songwriting has been helpful and inspires your own songwriting. If you have any of your own favourite metaphors, please leave them in the comments below!