How to Write Non-Visual Lyrics – Part 1

The majority of songwriting classes teach the principle of “show, don’t tell”. Writing visual lyrics that enable the listener to “see” the song in their mind is often considered to be one of the more effective ways of connecting with audiences. These lyrics don’t spoon feed what the singer thinks or feels. Instead, they use visual imagery that enables the listener to conclude what the singer is emoting.

While visual writing can be effective, by looking at some of today’s hits, along with some of the more iconic songs from the past, show that many songs that remain in our minds and in our hearts don’t employ this lyrical technique. So, let’s delve into the techniques and the tools that can aid non-visual lyrics.

A fresh perspective

The most effective lyrics are often built on the fresh perspective concept i.e. writing about an old subject in a new way. When writing a song about a subject that has been endlessly addressed, such as “I love you”, it’s vital to find new ways to express it. In the Justin Bieber song “Friends” (Justin Tranter, Michael Tucker, Julia Cavazos, Justin Bieber), the lyric poses the question “does a relationship need to end when it ends?”. This is a new way of asking the timeless question “can we still be friends?”. While there are no visual images in the lyric, by getting specific on which questions to ask within a conversation’s context, the singer’s emotions resonate with anyone who has experienced the pain that comes with the end of a relationship. He asks her if she’s with another love, how her mum is doing, if her mum had got the job she wanted, and if she’d sold her car. These are unique ways to get across the pain that comes with having had an intimate relationship come to an end. It’s important to have a fresh concept. By employing the following tools, you can write lines that avoid being cliché and predictable- lines that will have listeners compelled to tell their friends about.

Metaphors and similes

A metaphor employs words that refer to something other than itself but of similar characteristics. Shakespeare employed this technique with the words “All the world’s a stage”. Mike Stoller and Jerry Lieber also used the technique in the Elvis classic “Hound Dog” with the phrase “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog”. Kate Perry calls someone a “Firework” in the song of the same name, “Firework” (Esther Dean, Mikkel Eriksen, Sandy Wilhelm, Tor Hermansen, and Katy Perry).

The Russell Dickerson hit “Yours” (Casey Brown, Parker Welling, and Russel Dickerson) uses metaphor superbly when the singer tells us that he was stuck in a bottle sitting on a shelf without ever having the opportunity to sail. The song includes further use of metaphor that describes him as “a burnt-out star” etc. This is a more compelling way of conveying the singer’s emotions than if he’d have literally said that he was lost and looney before meeting the woman he’s addressing in the song.

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