Write Better Lyrics #3: Is Your Lyric General Where it Could Be Specific?

OK, so your SUBJECT MATTER MATTERS and your lyric has the power that comes from SIMPLICITY AND PURITY. But your lyric still ain't singing the way you know it can.

It's time for lyric question No. 3:


The way to a listener’s heart, mind and soul is the imagination. In this media-saturated world, if we fail to engage a person at the imagination-level, we won’t keep her for long. Fortunately, there are Imagination Scientists who study the way the human imagination works. (I love picturing guys in white lab coats with pocket protectors playing AC/DC, Randy Travis and Sara Groves for human subjects and measuring corresponding brain waves. Then again, if that's what amuses me, perhaps I need a new hobby.)

Anyway, whenever I teach songwriting at a local college, I reference the work of a writer and researcher named Chris Blake. His intriguing article, “The Imagination of the Listener” can be found in The Craft and Business of Songwriting (in my view, the definitive songwriting textbook) by John Braheny (p.46-56).

Blake notes that when the imagination receives a new cue (for example, words in a song or on paper), it constructs an image to go with that cue based on a whole host of stored previous experiences. It turns out that the strongest cues (collections of words) are simple, concrete, action-oriented images that invite the imagination to engage. Our next several lyric questions will key in on the ways we can best trigger the listener's imagination.

Specific images are more engaging than general ones. Most listeners, for example, will be able to picture a "single gray feather" better than they can picture "a flock of birds." So, take a look at your lyrics, and try the following:

1. Anywhere you mention a general place or thing, see if there is a more specific, evocative image that can replace the general reference.
One of my favorite examples of this is "Walkaway Joe", recorded by Trisha Yearwood and written by Vince Melamed and Greg Barnhill. The girl waits in a gas station parking lot as the guy robs the cashier ... the lyric says "She's waiting in the car/Underneath the Texaco Star". Not only do I have an immediate picture of where she is, there is also the resonance of all her misguided dreams as they relate to "stars". That there is good writing.

2. Add sensory information wherever you can. Don't just talk about a "car'. Let us know the make or the color or the way it smells or how the engine hums. Pull us in.

3. Bonus points for metaphoric resonance. "Chevy" or "Rolls" mean more than "car", not only because they're more specific (allowing us to picture the car better), but because they immediately put us into certain eras, social classes, or mentalities.

4. Pick specifics that have "universality" to them. In other words, provide specific images that people will be familiar with in some way. If a listener can't picture what you're describing, his imagination will be repelled.
Universality is subjective, of course. I love the specifics Lyle Lovett puts into songs, even when he includes the names of relatives (in a song like "Family Reserve"). Though I don't know his relatives, by referring to them by name he helps me relate to them as specific people rather than general concepts.
I debated long and hard about doing the same thing in a song called Great Cloud of Witnesses. I was afraid that by referring to my grandparents and friends by name I would shut the listener out. But in the end I decided that the specificity of their names made them more concrete. And listener reaction confirmed this. Don't be afraid to "test out" your specifics (you can even get a lab coat and pocket pretender if you want!) to see if they work.

Remember, specificity = engagement. Be ruthless with your lyrics. Don't let a lame duck, general idea just lay there when a specific image will so much more for you.

Next Post in This Series: Lyric Question No. 4. Bookmark or subscribe to Songville to make sure you don't miss it!

Till then -- can you think of a great lyric that thrives on specificity? Or do you disagree with this approach? What helps you engage with the words of a song?
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Anonymous said...

Hi Carolyn,

I really appreciate your new blog. Thanks for sharing your wealth of experience with us.

Point number 2: Sense-based writing is something I struggle with as a writer, even though I've read Pat Pattison's Writing Better Lyrics and attended a songwriter's retreat with him through REO River Rafting.

Regarding specific writing overall: I've read (through Sheila Davis, Molly-Ann Leikin, and others), that specific terms give your listeners a general idea, where general terms won't give your listeners anything.

Go specific!


Carolyn Arends said...

"specific terms give your listeners a general idea, where general terms won't give your listeners anything" -- spoken like a songwriter, Tony. Thanks!