Let’s say you’re in love with someone and you want to let that person know how you feel. You could simply walk up to them and say, “I love you.” That might work. Or you could make an effort to create the right surroundings: a walk along the beach, holding hands on a summer evening under a twilight sky, and as the moon rises and hangs like a giant disco ball in the sky, you whisper, “I love you.”
Without a doubt, the second option seems more likely to convey your I-love-you message convincingly (except for the disco ball). And while it’s not guaranteed to make the other person love you in return, as a songwriter it’s definitely going to give your audience a better chance to feel what you’re feeling and believe you really are in love! And that’s what songs are all about.
When you give your listeners the details of an experience in a way they can see, feel, and touch, you draw them into the experience: they picture the beach at sunset, feel the warm air, and hear the words that are spoken. They’re involved in your situation without even thinking about it. Using the physical senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste – to convey emotions is much, MUCH more effective than simply telling your audience what you feel. Here’s how you do it.
=> Use the physical experience of emotions
Emotions are physical things – that’s probably why they’re called “feelings.” We actually feel them in our bodies. Let’s use the emotion of “falling in love.” What does it physically feel like? Think back to a time when you were crazy in love and try to describe the physical sensation in words and phrases. Here are a few ideas that I think of: Dizzy. Floating. Flying. Dreaming. Can’t stop smiling. Feel like singing. The world looks brighter, like there’s more sunshine! Make a list of words that describe how you feel when you’re in love. They may be similar to ones I just mentioned. Go ahead and use them and add some more. If you can’t think of any right away, take your time. Add to your list throughout the rest of the day.
=> Use a family of associated words and images
Once you have a list of words and phrases that physically describe the feeling, make another list of images, ideas, and objects you associate with these. Most words come with a family of associated ideas. So, “flying” might suggest kite, balloon, bird. “Dizzy” could suggest carnival ride, which could then suggest cotton candy, etc. Don’t leave a word off just because you think it doesn’t make sense. If it occurs to you in connection with another word, go ahead and write it down.
=> Turn your word lists into a lyric
Choose one or more of the words/phrases in your list and use it in the opening line of a verse or chorus. For instance I could start with “Flying like a big red balloon” because “flying” was in my description of how love makes me physically feel and “balloon” was an associated word. I had “sunshine” on my list, so next I might try… “Shining like the sun on the end of a string.”
Now I’m picturing this balloon/sun tied to someone’s heart. I like that image so I’ll use that. “Tied to your heart, whenever you’re around. Rising light as air, off of the ground.”
The “around/ground” rhyme was a little gift, so I’ll keep it for now but don’t worry too much about rhyming. Just keep building your images and sensations. As you think of more, add them to your lists and use them as needed. You don’t want to put an image or physical sensation in every line. But be sure to use enough that your listeners know what the emotion feels like so they can experience it themselves!
This is great raw material to build a song on, and an important component of effective lyric writing. Go ahead and choose an emotion. Make your own word lists based on it and try to rough out a chorus or verse.
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.