Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Songwriter's Poetic Tools

Songwriting isn't easy, but great songwriters know the power of metaphor, alliteration, imagery and symbolism. Below are some of my favorite lyrics to serve as examples of these devices.

METAPHOR - a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.

"There's a bad moon on the rise" - John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival wrote this as a reference to Nixon being elected president.

"Squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg" - I first heard this listening to a Led Zeppelin album, but bluesman Robert Johnson was the true author. I shouldn't have to explain what the lemon metaphor means if you are over thirteen.

ALLITERATION - the repetition of the same sound.

"Sitting on a sofa on a sunday afternoon" - from Simon and Garfunkel's Mrs. Robinson.

"My love she comes in colors, you can tell her by the clothes she wears" - from a song written by Arthur Lee of the sixties group Love.

IMAGERY - words that invoke poetic images.

You're eyes without a face - from the Billy Idol song Eyes Without a Face. It was a great video as well.

"Beneath the halo of a street lamp I turned my collar to the cold and damp" - more Simon and Garfunkel from The Sounds of Silence.

SYMBOLISM - similar to metaphor but often tied to religious or political messages. Bob Dylan is a master of this.

I want to know who'll stop the rain - John Fogerty and CCR again referring symbolically to the war in Vietnam.

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" - Bob Dylan's symbolic nod to the counter-culture referring to how you didn't need to be told be the establishment talking heads on television how to interpret and understand the great social changes that took place when this song was written in the sixties. The name of a group of sixties radicals known as The Weathermen was inspired by this lyric.

"It's a hard rain that's going to fall" - Bob Dylan's symbolic reference to the bombing of Vietnam.

Although I am sure that the vast majority of people who read this post are already quite familiar with these devices, it is helpful to be reminded sometimes about what makes great lyrics unforgettable. I'll end this post with one of the most unforgettable lyrics I know:

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.



  1. "Hard Rain" was written during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 and Dylan was trying to fit as many images into the song as he could due to feeling very apocalyptic and pessimistic about the outcome of that stand off. Don Cooney

  2. Thanks Don! I was relying on memory for much of this, I'm glad that you corrected me on that.

  3. Hard rain was written before the Cuban missle crisis.

  4. Actually, the Creedence lyric is:

    And I wonder, Still I wonder, Who'll stop the rain.

    The song you are mixing up with it (literally) is "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" with the refrain:

    I want to know, have you ever seen the rain
    Comin' down on a sunny day?

  5. Phil you are right I guess I was typing faster than I was thinking!



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