Metaphor, Images and Songs as Teachers….

I was posting a comment about this on another blog, and seeing as how I wrote so much about it, I thought I’d post some of it up here in it’s own right.

The post I was commenting on was about the use of metaphor in song, and how it can be done well or badly.

Basically, I think the effective use of metaphor in song comes down to images.

Something like the Bob Dylan song ‘You’re a Big Girl Now’ when he’s talking about pain and says ‘Like a corkscrew to my heart…’ – you FEEL it. He doesn’t try to tell you how bad his pain is, he shows it. And he does so with that striking image.

The human mind or imagination does not respond as well to ideas or abstract concepts, as it does to solid images. I mean the word ‘Imagination’ gives it away.

There’s an excellent section in John Braheny‘s equally excellent book ‘The Craft and Business of Songwriting’ called ‘The Imagination of the Listener’ which discusses this in great detail.

It’s due to this natural instinct for our minds to wrap themselves around images that the great songwriters and their songs are lauded for the intricately small details that point to much larger things.

Tom Waits is an absolute master at this. The song ‘Soldier’s Things’ is a case in point for very specific physical details pointing to much larger concepts and feelings.

However, just piling your songs with great images isn’t enough.

The way I look at this, and what really stands out for me about songs is realising that by design, the narration and the pace of great songs never gives you EVERYTHING in terms of information – they give you just enough to kick start your own imagination and let you do the rest.

It’s almost identical to the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher:

A bad teacher will just tell the students what they need to know and try to force the information in.

A good teacher asks their pupils questions, giving them SOME information, just enough, and forcing their minds to do the rest.

It’s by leaving the space there for our minds to fill that we are drawn into these songs. Our minds don’t like the vacuum created by the open images and are forced to fill them.

Good writers always say ‘Show, don’t tell’.

It’s a beautiful trick they play on us.


2 Responses to “Metaphor, Images and Songs as Teachers….”

  1. Hi Gideon, I enjoyed this blog and look forward to reading more. Thank you for referencing my book, “The Craft and Business of Songwriting.” That section you mention was written by Chris Blake but I, too, felt it was too amazingly powerful NOT to have it in my book. Regarding your example: technically, if it says “like”, it’s a simile. If he said, “You’re a corkscrew in my heart”, it’s a metaphor. Either way, you’re absolutely right about the visuals. They’re always important, though more so in country where the lyrics are usually the most important ingredient. If you’re interested in creativity you might enjoy my wife, JoAnn’s site. Thanks again,

  2. Hi John,

    I’m totally wowed that you responded to my blog.

    It’s a pleasure to reference your book – I’ve enjoyed it greatly so far and have found plenty of useful tips, ideas and food for thought in it.

    RE Simile/Metaphor: You’re right, I knew I should’ve been paying more attention in English lessons at school.

    I wonder what you mean about lyrics being more important in country music? I tend to find in most genre’s the lyrics are pretty much unbearable in 80% of cases, with a few great songs and artists at the top of any genre, that in many ways transcend the whole genre anyway. I’d like to hear more about your line of thought though.

    Thank you very much for both your comments and for the link. It’s right up my alleyway.



    PS Apologies it’s taken me so long to post a response.

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