How to Write Lyrics (Using Metaphors Like a Pro)
In this article, we’re taking a look at how to incorporate metaphors into your lyric writing. Metaphoric language provides an excellent way to communicate your thoughts, ideas, and emotions in a more profound way, transcending the banal ordinary use of plain language.
Metaphors are a form of figurative language, as opposed to plain literal language. Essentially, a metaphor is a phrase that describes something in terms of being something else in a way that is not literally true, but helps explain a deeper emotion or underlying feeling behind the language. The dictionary defines a metaphor as “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.” (See Google Dictionary). The dictionary uses the example of describing sadness as “falling through a trap door or depression.” The idea is that the sad person is not literally falling through a trapdoor, it’s only a poetic use of language to hyper-emphasize the emotion being sad.
If you take a metaphorical phrase literally, it should sound bizarre. For instance, you may have heard of the phrase “walking on egg shells” to describe how it feels to be around an emotionally difficult person. As in, “every time Joe is in the room, I’m walking on egg shells trying not to upset him.” In that example, the speaker is not literally walking on top of egg shells, it’s only a way to express the feeling of having to be extra delicate around a difficult person. Another example, might be if you refer to a loving partner or spouse as your “rock.” They are not literally a physical rock, it’s just that their love creates a sense of stability for you.
Keep in mind that metaphors are not similes, which is another form of figurative language. Similes compare things using the words like or as, metaphors just literally discuss one thing as though it’s another. For example, a simile could be used to say that Joe is “as brave as a lion”, or Sally is “smart like a fox”. Similes have less potency as poetic devices, because it’s clear that a comparison is being drawn between the two things as opposed to one thing being discussed as though it is, in fact, the other. Both devices have their respective places in polished writing.
In the context of songwriting, metaphors allow writers to capture many of the nuances of expression for which there is no specific or standard vocabulary available. Creating a new metaphor is a very creative undertaking, allowing the writer full reign to invent them at will to serve their expressive needs. The perfect metaphor can really capture what a writer feels, sees in his or her mind, and convey ideas much more powerfully. Metaphors can also be intrinsically very beautiful sonically, and/or can present much more potent language than using plain ordinary speech.
Let’s take a look at several example from popular songs, across a variety of different eras from past to present.
Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” illustrates a good example of a straightforward metaphor. The metaphor is the phrase “tangled up in blue,” i.e. Bob is not literally tangled up in the color blue; rather, this is a way for him to express that he is caught up in a prolonged sadness, lamenting over the fact that he cannot be with a woman he loves from afar. Ed Sheeran’s “Photograph” illustrates a relatively straightforward metaphor example from a modern day song, when he discusses how time is “forever frozen still” in pictures we take of each other. Time is not literally at a sub-zero freezing temperature, this is just his way of expressing how pictures capture isolated moments in time we can revisit when we look at them. What if the lyric was:
We keep this love in a photograph
We make these memories for ourselves
where our eyes are never closing
our hearts are never broken
and time is forever displayed motionless and captured in an isolated moment that we can re-view over and over again … Huh?
Another example comes from Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”. In the first verse that follows the chorus, she talks about being “lightning” on her feet. Obviously, she’s not literally lightning. This is just a poetic way to establish that she’s a good dancer.
I never miss a beat
I’m such a good fricking dancer, oh yeah … Lol
Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” illustrates an example of an extended metaphor. An extended metaphor is essentially just a lengthy more elaborate play on a metaphor (or multiple metaphors) to really drive home the comparison. The intention is to build a deep depiction of the particular thought, emotion, or action at hand. The classic example comes from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”: “[a]ll the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.” Each phrase hammers home the initial metaphor of life as a stage. Thinking of it as riffing on the initial metaphor.
In Heart of Gold Neil Young uses the phrase “I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold”, to describe the feeling of searching for a truer expressiveness either within himself or a partner. The metaphor is extended because there is a double play on the wording: he’s been a (1) “miner” (not literally), for a (2) “heart of gold” (also not literal). The two parts of the phrase are an extended play on this concept of mining for gold and searching for a “heart of gold”.
Another more modern example of an extended metaphor comes from Maroon 5’s “Stereo Heart”. In that track, Adam Levine sing the lyric: (1) “My heart’s a stereo” (not literally) (2) It beats for you, so listen close (just riffing on this concept of the heart as a stereo, his heart is not literally beating for the person), (3) Hear my thoughts in every note, oh oh (again, more riffing on this idea of the heart as a stereo, his thoughts are not literally in every beat of the heart and the beats are not musical notes being played for his love interest). The prolonged use of the metaphor really drives home the underlying sentiment, so long as it is tastefully done.
Another way to use metaphors is by using a series of them in tandem, which is called using a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors typically combine unrelated metaphors, which can be effective to drive home a point (but can also sound ridiculous if you go overboard). People in the corporate and political world use mixed metaphors a lot. For example, when the big boss comes in and says “we’ve got to step up to the plate, and put all the cards on the table; I’m tired of seeing you people just mailing it in, and running on auto-pilot. Our competitors are killing us, and leaving us behind in a trail of dust.” Try reading that sentence and interpreting each phrase literally (office workers stepping up to a baseball diamond’s home plate, putting playing cards on a poker table, mailing their work into the office, or being literally killed by the competition while standing in a big cloud of dust). Over-mixing metaphors, per the example, starts to sound quite ridiculous.
A tasteful example of a mixed metaphor from a song is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars”, which has the following lines: “You’re a sky full of stars” (not literally) … “you light up the dark” (more of an extension of the notion of being a sky full of stars) … “I’m gonna give you my heart” (here’s the mixed metaphor, he’s not literally going to rip out his heart from his chest) … “I don’t care, go on and tear me apart” (she’s not literally going to tear him apart). Another example from a song (maybe a little less tasteful), is Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” which features the following “Every rose has it’s thorn; Just like every night has it’s dawn; Just like every cowboy sings his sad, sad song.” Be cautious in mixing so many metaphors that you leave your audience scratching their heads, like if you have a lyric like “you can complain until you’re blue in the face, but I’m not changing until the cows come home.” Huh? Or “this train’s a rolling out, this boat is setting sail, flying down the highway, hugging close to the rails.” Um, maybe pick a mode of transportation.
The final examples are called “dead” metaphors, or cliches. This type of metaphor is used so often in common speech that the metaphorical effect has all but vanished. It’s been overplayed. They can be used tastefully, or they can sound tired and unoriginal. A tasteful example is Sia’s “Chandelier”, which contains the relatively common metaphor of talking about her phone “blowing up“. The lyric goes: “I’m the one “for a good time call … Phone’s blowin’ up, they’re ringin’ my doorbell”. The lyric works because of the way it sits relative to the other lyrics surrounding it. The phrase is a metaphor, because the phone is not literally blowing up; rather, it’s a common way to say that the phone is ringing a lot. But people use this phrase so much it doesn’t sound metaphorical anymore. Another example is the Beatles’ “Let it Be” which has the lyric “when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree.” People’s hearts are not literally broken, the people are just sad. The metaphor is used very commonly, but almost sounds just like a common phrase (an “idiom”), rather than a washed up old metaphor. Be careful about lines like “my heart beats for you”, “plenty of fish in the sea”, “kid in a candy store”, and other tired old sayings that have lost poignancy. In those cases, see if you can invent your own more original metaphoric phrase. It’s tempting to re-hash and repeat metaphors you have heard in other songs, but the lack of originality can render your lyrics trite and uninteresting.
In sum, metaphors are a very powerful poetic device to communicate what you have to say, by conveying a more nuanced form of language more closely linked with the emotion behind the words used. In reading this article, I hope the examples will make you more sensitive to the metaphors you hear in songs that you listen to in the future and stimulate your own creativity to explore metaphoric language in your own lyric writing. As an exercise, if you’re up for it, fee free to try the following:
Try to re-write these phrases with metaphoric language (don’t look at the example solutions until you write your own metaphors):
(1) I’m feeling really upset with you
(2) It’s taking a long time to get where I want to go in life
(3) It’s extremely difficult to communicate with you when you’re upset
(4) Today has been one of the most exciting days of her life
(5) You feel very distant from me emotionally
(1) You’ve lit the flames of fury within me
(2) My feet are frozen in place, chasing a dream so far away
(3) You’re a stone, lodged and tucked away, lips sealed
(4) She’s a beam of light from this wonderful day
(5) You’re an island lost in a fog at sea from me