A great way to engage your listeners is to engage all five of their senses. Here’s how…

As human beings we tend to be fairly visually focused, and as a result lean heavily on describing what we can see in our songs. However, this is only a small portion of what we experience day to day, and so our songs should reflect that.

When was the last time you smelled a stranger’s aftershave or perfume and were instantly reminded of a former lover, or heard a song that took you back to your school days? Using details like these can open up a new world of sensation for your listeners and paint a multi-dimensional picture that elevates your song beyond just what someone looked like.

1. See

Sight is the most commonly used sense in songwriting, so we’ll look at this first (excuse the pun!). Descriptions of how someone or something looks are the foundation of many songs, but shouldn’t be the be all and the end all of our experience.

Here you can see a couple of examples of visually focused lyrics:

Taylor Swift – “Style”

You got that James Dean daydream look in your eye
And I got that red lip classic thing that you like

The Weeknd – “Starboy”

House so empty, need a centerpiece
Twenty racks, a table cut from ebony
Cut that ivory into skinny pieces
Then she clean it with her face, man

2. Smell

Another powerful sense is your sense of smell. The smell of momma’s home cooking, or fresh coffee, her perfume, his aftershave, of car grease or red roses can all be used to plant another anchor in your listeners mind, to help them build up a unique picture of what’s happening.

Here are a several examples of well-scented lyrics:

Maroon 5 – “Ladykiller”

Baby she’ll eat you alive, as soon as she smells your blood in the water
You better run to survive, before she makes you her latest slaughter

Rihanna – “S&M”

Cause I may be bad
But I’m perfectly good at it
Sex in the air
I don’t care
I love the smell of it

Maroon 5 – “Animals”

Maybe you think that you can hide
I can smell your scent from miles
Just like animals, animals, like animals-mals

3. Touch

Touch is one of our more primal senses. Using this sense in your songwriting can go beyond basic descriptions like soft skin or rough stubble, to conjure up strong feelings of physical pain or ecstasy, or even pseudo-sensations like racing pulses and asphyxiation.

Below are two solid examples of the use of touch in songwriting:

Halsey – “Eyes Closed”

Now if I keep my eyes closed he feels just like you
But you’ve been replaced

Ed Sheeran – “Photograph”

Loving can hurt
Loving can hurt sometimes
But it’s the only thing that I know
When it gets hard
You know it can get hard sometimes
It is the only thing that makes us feel alive

4. Taste

The sensation of taste is less frequently used in modern pop songwriting, but can still be very evocative in the right hands.

Ed Sheeran – “Shape Of You”

One week in we let the story begin
We’re going out on our first date (mmmm)
You and me are thrifty, so go all you can eat
Fill up your bag and I fill up a plate (mmmm)
We talk for hours and hours about the sweet and the sour
And how your family is doing okay (mmmm)

Ellie Goulding – “Beating Heart”

Eyes make their peace in difficulties
With wounded lips and salted cheeks
And finally we step to leave
To the departure lounge of disbelief

And I don’t know where I’m going
But I know it’s gonna be a long time
And I’ll be leaving in the morning
Come the white wine bitter sunlight

5. Hear

We’re writing music, and music is all about sound, so why not include stuff you can hear in your descriptions?

Here are a couple of examples of lyrics containing sonic sensations:

Jason Derulo – “Trumpets”

Every time that you get undressed
I hear symphonies in my head
I wrote this song just looking at you ooh, oh
Yeah the drums they swing low
And the trumpets they go

Katy Perry – “Roar”

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar

6. Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia is a medical condition where the senses get confused, and are misinterpreted by the brain. While quite rare in real life, using this concept in our songwriting can be surprisingly effective at producing original and unique descriptions, or as the basis for new metaphors.

Here are a couple of artists who do this sensationally:

Charlie Puth – “Attention”

I know that dress is karma, perfume regret

Adele – “Rolling In The Deep”

There’s a fire starting in my heart
Reaching a fever pitch
And it’s bringing me out the dark

7. Multiple Senses

Of course, major songwriters rarely stick to one sense. The best songs draw on all our senses to build up a multi-dimensional picture which has something for everybody.

Here are several songs which expertly jump from one sense to another to show you what success smells like:

Jason Derulo – “Want To Want Me”

You open the door
Wearing nothing but a smile, fell to the floor
And you whisper in my ear, “Baby, I’m yours.”
Ooh, just the thought of you gets me so high, so high

The Weeknd – “Starboy”

You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking ’bout me, I don’t see the shade
Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

Rihanna – “Love The Way You Like pt 2”

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn
But that’s all right because I like the way it hurts
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
But that’s all right because I love the way you lie

Ed Sheeran – “The A Team”

White lips, pale face
Breathing in snowflakes
Burnt lungs, sour taste
Light’s gone, day’s end
Struggling to pay rent
Long nights, strange men

Can you think of any other examples, or have you written any of your own lyrics using one or more senses? If so, tell us about it in the comments!

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