#1August 15th, 2010 · 09:24 PM
102 threads / 59 songs
204 posts
Lesson 19: Storytelling and Imagery
This is a long one. Better sit down.

In Disney's Fantasia, Deems Taylor explains that there are 3 types of music: music that tells a definite story, music that paints a series of pictures, and "absolute music", music that exists just for music's sake. When we add lyrics to a song we're generally focussing on the first type of music with some considerations to the second kind (i.e. imagery). Usually we want to tell a story, it's not always a traditional story with a plot and a conflict, sometimes it's just a story about how you felt yesterday or musings on a particular subject but lyrics can support any kind of music. There is no firm restriction that states that your lyrics must be coherent to your audience, in fact some of my favourite songs have lyrics that I don't understand and that's just fine, sometimes we're not meant to understand.

We write lyrics because that is how songs in our style retain the listener's interest. So lyrics need to satisfy one basic criteria - they should make a song more enjoyable to listen to, rather than detracting. Note however that the listener doesn't usually get a full impression of the meaning of your lyrics upon first listen so if you're writing lyrics for live performances the actual poetic meaning of your words become much less relevant - in fact, you can write just about anything and odds are no one will notice or remember what you've sung (I'm not trying to sound jilted, I'm just being realistic). If you want to write poetry that people will hear and be moved by, crowded bars may not be the best venue.

This brings us to a second point - lyrics are meant to be heard... by other people. Remember why you're writing lyrics. If you have something deep and personal that you're not ready to share with others, don't write it into a song you plan to play to others. I caution in general about getting too personal with your lyrics. It can make it very hard to accept and receive good criticism about them and can very easily skew your perception of "good lyricism".

Now that that's out of the way, let's deconstruct. There are many kinds of lyrics. There are lyrics that tell a definite story in that they describe a series of concatenated events, lyrics that discuss a particular subject or theme and present ideas, and lyrics that simply combine pretty words. We're going to focus on the first and second kind as they are most delicate, the third kind is sort of a musical side of lyricism and the English language - it depends mainly on how words sound, not necessarily what they mean together.

Lyrics that tell a story should be paired with music that tells a similar story. There's a lot of leeway here but you can get the picture, don't set an exciting story against a boring backdrop.

I like songs that tell stories. I think they're a lot of fun and tend to be a lot more light-hearted and more interesting than lyrics that just discuss a topic. Storytelling is all about action - it's full of verbs. But stories also need imagery to make them vivid and real. As we'll see, lyricists need to find a compromise between imagery and storytelling -- action and description. Let's look at an example that focuses on action:

God Shuffled His Feet - Crash Test Dummies (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AzNzCiZwk28)

After seven days
He was quite tired so God said:
"Let there be a day
Just for picnics, with wine and bread"
He gathered up some people he had made
Created blanket and laid back in the shade

The people sipped their wine
And what with God there, they asked him questions
Like: do you have to eat
Or get your hair cut in heaven?
And if your eye got poked out in this life
Would it be waiting up in heaven with your wife?

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

So he said:"Once there was a boy
Who woke up with blue hair
To him it was a joy
Until he ran out into the warm air
He thought of how his friend would come to see;
And would they laugh, or had he got some strange disease?

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

The people sat waiting
Out on their blankets in the garden
But God said nothing
So someone asked him:"I beg your pardon:
I'm not quite clear about what you just spoke
What that a parabole, or a very subtile joke?"

God shuffled his feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at him

I love this song. The vocals are fantastic and the lyrics are really interesting and a lot of fun. The story is pretty transparent. After the creation of the earth God wants to relax with a picnic so he gathers some people and has one. The people keep bombarding him with questions and God, possibly not having any answers, stalls for time and answers in parables. So what's good about it?

Well for starters, the story is interesting and it comes with a lighthearted and novel take on religion and dogma. The idea is strong and the story is creative. The delivery is also effective. We get a strong sense of things happening, even though not very much does. The song doesn't offer a lot in the way of imagery because in this song, the action says a lot more than the image.

To contrast, consider Margaret vs. Pauline by Neko Case (rough version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOOcSuFh-V0&feature=related). This song is much heavier on imagery and less on story.

Margaret vs. Pauline - Neko Case

Everything's so easy for Pauline
Everything's so easy for Pauline
Ancient strings set feet alight
To speed to her such mild grace
No monument of tacky gold
They smoothed her hair
With cinnamon waves
And they placed an ingot in her breast
To burn cool
And collected
Fate holds her firm in it's cradle
And then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everythings so easy for Pauline

Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
Of a make believe monster whose picture was fake
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Her jaw aches from wanting
And shes sick from chlorine
But she'll never be as clean
As the cool-side-of-satin Pauline

Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left a sweater sitting on the train
And the other lost three fingers at the cannery

Everythings so easy for Pauline
For Pauline
For Pauline

This song also tells a story. It juxtaposes the lives of two girls from the perspective of Margaret who always feels inadequate to Pauline. What makes the delivery so effective is the depth of imagery available to the listener. Everything is described in metaphor, rarely with just adjectives. While we could summarize Pauline's qualities in the first stanza as: Graceful, cool, lucky, beautiful, etc. Case enriches these qualities with greater specificity. The line "they placed and ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected" is a pretty way to explain that Pauline is coolheaded but it also gives us a sense of tone. All of Pauline's descriptions are addressed as if they come from heaven, she was purposefully given natural advantage by the gods.

Margaret's descriptors don't just tell us about her but the way in which they're written helps garner her pity. "Her jaw aches from wanting" is effective hyperbole, through exaggeration and by incorporating a something kinesthetic, "aches", we get a much greater sense of Margaret's longing.

The song ends with the only actual piece of action in the whole thing. Each line in the third stanza describes something that happens. The imagery is minimalist. This offers great contrast with the previous two stanzas and the last line comes as a bit of a shock. I like this song because the story, although short, is interesting. It's the story of a girl who doesn't get any breaks in life and then continues to suffer unjustly. It's not kind of ending we're used to but I think it's a better ending because it's motivated by the characters and not by the author's desire for a happy ending.

I want to touch on imagery and then I'm going to stop as this is getting pretty long.

Imagery is the complete image that your listener gets from your lyrics and music. Don't be deceived by the word "image". Imagery is about more than just seeing, it's about the full range of senses and giving the listener a strong image gives them more than just an idea, it puts them in the scene.

Creating good imagery can be essential and is not always easy but there are some tricks.

Be specific. Use more than just words to describe things, use common experiences, backstories, metaphor, hyperbole, etc. You can use specific details to connect your listener on a personal level. There's another Crash Test Dummies song which opens with the line:

I Think I'll Disappear Now - Crash Test Dummies

Running into you like this without a warning
Is like catching a sniff of tequila in the morning
But I'll try,
I'll try and keep my food down.
It's quite an aftertaste that you've left now that you're not around.

The lyrics tells us more than just "running into you made me feel sick". I compares the experience with a feeling to which the listener can easily relate. Moreover, it gives a very specific and elaborate image of the subject's feelings without using a lot of words. Notice that imagery doesn't only apply to physical scenes, it can be applied to anything that can be related to a sensory experience.

Compare things. Instead of telling us about a scene, compare it to something we already know about, this is quick way to paint far more elaborate scenes.

One other quick way to create a richer image is to juxtapose to dissimilar adjectives. The image "Tastes like steel and cinnamon" is quick, specific, and interesting. It forces the lister to make the juxtaposition and thus focus on the image.

I'm about to hit 10000 characters so that's all for now. Tune in next time.
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