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Paint a Picture with Lyrics

Think of songwriting as showing rather than telling. Use your listeners mind to paint an image that conveys how you're feeling.

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the old adage goes, meaning a complex idea can be expressed by an image so much quicker and more beautifully than using a long sequence of words.

Use imagery to evoke feelings in your lyrics. A song that just names feelings in an unemotional way will lose the listener quickly. Equally, one that uses cliches and lines from pre-existing songs, is just as guilty.

Writing to paint a picture can lead to a more memorable and deeper song. For example, in Paul Simon's Homeward Bound, he builds an image to portray his feelings:

'Each town looks the same to me
The movies and the factories
And every stranger’s face I see
Reminds me that I long to be
Homeward bound
I wish I was.'

It sends you off to a different world and lets your imagination create a much larger picture of what is happening in Paul's mind, rather than just six lines listing his feelings. Consider what it might be like if a less confident songwriter wrote the same verse without imagery.

Despite evoking strong visuals, the lyrics don't need to be complex. In fact, simplicity is often more important. Using plain language along with everyday words and phrases allows the listener to relate. It chimes a bell as something they're familiar with, as long as these common words create a picture worth seeing.

Add weight to your composition by creating characters and writing from their perspective. This can create a whole new array of ideas from which paint your lyrical pictures from. Each character can inhabit a different picture, portray a different emotion. How do these characters experience the world in ways different to yourself? What are their fears and motivations?

Telling a story is one tried and tested way of painting a picture. You can immediately talk about locations, events and other people to bring an energy to the lyric, if you do it right. Keeping it concise and simple is not always easy though. It may take a lot of trial and error and a lot of editing before you hit the right content. Consider Bruce Springsteen's The River. Here he is telling us about a relationship in an evocative and thought-provoking manner:

'Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote
And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat
We went down to the courthouse and the judge put it all to rest
No wedding day smiles, no walk down the aisle, no flowers no wedding dress'

The story can span different lengths of time too. In Bruce's song, he talks about a certain day, the events that led up to it and his experience. The next example, from Taylor Swift's No body, no crime, tells us about a conversation she had with a friend, which draws a dark image of a certain character:

'Este's a friend of mine
We meet up every Tuesday night for dinner and a glass of wine
Este's been losin' sleep
Her husband's actin' different, and it smells like infidelity
She says, "That ain't my Merlot on his mouth
That ain't my jewelry on our joint account"
No, there ain't no doubt
I think I'm gonna call him out

The examples I've used so far have a direct literal approach to their lyrical style, in the way an artist might paint a portrait or a straighforward landscape. But there's other less direct ways, for instance, Joni Mitchell uses a more whimsical approach in her song Court and Spark:

'Love came to my door
With a sleeping roll
And a madman's soul
He thought for sure I'd seen him
Dancing up a river in the dark
Looking for a woman
To court and spark'

One final example is from Leonard Cohen's song Tonight Will Be Fine, which is a perfect answer to my plea to paint a picture with your lyrics. He describes a scene with precise langauage before completing the verse with a line that sums up his state of mind as he lives through that moment.

'I choose the rooms that I live in with care,
The windows are small and the walls almost bare,
There’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer,
I listen all night for your step on the stair.'

As you have seen, a great way to understand how to write a good lyric is to study songs from past masters. How did they manage to capture the hearts of so many people around the world? They used imagery.

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