Write Better Lyrics #5: Is Your Lyric Abstract Where it Could Be Concrete?

Synopsis: Moving your lyrics from abstractions to concrete representations of those abstractions may be the SINGLE MOST POWERFUL change you can make as a songwriter, particularly if you write about love and/or faith.

Help Needed:
What's your favorite lyric example of a concrete standing in for an abstraction? Please share it in the comment section below. Seriously, make this somewhat abstract blog post concrete for me! Thanking ya ...

Definitions: An abstraction is a concept or idea (love, hate, hope, despair, faith, justice, democracy, etc.). To be concrete is to make reference to an actual physical object or sensation.

Example 1:
abstraction: Falling in Love
concrete: Stammering, butterflies in stomach, holding hands, sweaty hands, blushing, etc.

Example 2:
abstraction: Christian belief in Christ's sacrifice on the cross
concrete: "Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand" (Chris Rice)

Context: I've been talking about key questions to ask of your lyrics to take them to the next level. So far we've looked at making sure that your SUBJECT MATTER MATTERS, that your lyric has the power that comes from SIMPLICITY AND PURITY, and that you are using SPECIFIC IMAGES that are HIGHLY RELATABLE.

That brings us to Lyric Question No. 5:

Back in the Lyric Question 3 post, we noted that the way to engage a listener in your song is through his or her 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. 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 & Business of Songwriting by John Braheny (p.46-56).

Blake notes that when the imagination receives a new cue (for example, words in a song), 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. Abstractions (huge and important concepts like faith, hope, justice, anger, salvation, sin and restoration) don’t work in the imagination. They actually turn it away.

Blake has fun with the famous country song The Gambler. Remember that one?

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

The song’s writer, Don Schlitz, outlines a whole philosophy of living in that song. But what if, Blake asks, Schlitz had just gone with abstractions rather than concrete images that represent them? You’d have something like:

It’s important to know when to persist in trying to achieve your goals and when to give up.
You have to know when to decide to give up what you’re doing gradually and to know when to give up quickly.
You should never make a judgment about how your life is going while it’s going on.
There’ll be plenty of time to look back to see how it all went after your life is over.

Try singing that one!

My students laugh when I give them that example. But how many love songs do just the same thing:

I love you so much.
I will never stop loving you.
Till the end of time, you will be mine.
Blah, blah, blah

And for those of you who are worship or faith-based songwriters, herein lies a huge challenge. The vast majority of overtly spiritual music is swimming in abstraction.

I praise God for His mercy.
I am grateful for salvation.
Thank you for restoration.
God is a God of justice.

Obviously, there is a place for abstraction. Many of us are driven to write because we feel passionate about concepts and ideas, about theologies and philosophies. It would be impossible to never have abstract ideas in your lyrics. But I promise you, if you will go through your lyrics and, wherever possible, replace an abstraction with a concrete, specific, detailed symbol of embodiment of that abstraction, your lyrics will come to life.

Remember, if you hope to move someone's heart or mind, you must engage the imagination. THE IMAGINATION IS A STIMULUS-REPONSE MECHANISM. No stimulus, no response.

But ... you know ... no pressure! Write on.

Next Post in This Series: Lyric Question No. 6. Bookmark or subscribe to Songville to make sure you don't miss it!
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Cord said...

Time's just grains of sand blown out of sight by winds of change - Don Francisco - Crooked Cornerstone

Actually the rest of the song has several examples of concrete imagery.


Puzzle said...

here are a couple of my lyrics that appeared on a friend's CD in 2004:

Lay me down like a road
Lay me down like a road
Oh sweet Lord Jesus pick me up and lay me down
Lay me down like a road

Take my life from my hands
Take my life from my hands
It’s so heavy on me, I can’t bear it anymore
Take my life from my hands

Lay me down like a road
Make it a long and quiet narrow tree-lined lane
I’ll be still between the trees
Lay down all my dreams, erase my face, my name
Under the leaves

Pluck my heart like a flower
Pluck my heart like a flower
All the dying petals will be cradled in your hands
So pluck my heart Lord Jesus like a flower

Lay me down Lord Jesus like a road


Wheat-coloured Woman

Wheat-coloured woman with your hair in your eyes
Joyous sweat pouring as you wield your scythe
Late summer woman working under the leaves
With your pale bright strong arms build high the sheaves

Throw up your arms woman, fall to your knees
Sing to all the harvesters hiding in the trees
Woman open-throated like a starling full of pain
Sing the workers out into the fields again

Dance with your harvest through the one true door
Spread it with delight on the threshing floor
Dance on it, woman, sing while you sway
And in between your fingers feel the chaff blow away


Wheat-coloured woman like a reed in the wind
Dance on the grass until the wheat blows in
Straw-coloured woman like a strong reed sway
Sing to the wind until the chaff blows away


Wheat-coloured woman, bowing in the wind,
Dance on the grass until the wheat blows in

This one goes beyond the concrete to the extended metaphor.

Check all the imagery in the Bible, in particular the Psalms: great images of joy and lament! I always remember a phrase from one of the Psalms in The Message: "My life is string too short to be saved." Ouch!!

I could go on and on, but I'll just say: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn. Done.


PS: Cole Porter!!

Puzzle said...

"All the diamonds in this world that mean anything to me/are conjured up by wind and sunlight sparkling on the sea.

Ran aground in a harbour town. Lost the taste for being free./Thank God he sent his gull-chased ship to carry me to sea.

Two thousand years and half a world away/ dying trees still will grow greener when you pray.

Silver scales ... Read morescales flash bright and fade in the leaves along the shore/Like a pearl in a sea of liquid jade His ship comes sailing/Like a crystal swan in a sky of suns His ship comes sailing"

Bruce Cockburn

one of the best lyrics I know.


Cord said...

From the caverns of my sordid rebellious youth, even as the rest of the song melts away, I really enjoy this concrete image of the pilgrims and first settlers - both Canada and the US.

"But still from near and far to seek America
They came by thousands to court the wild
And she just patiently smiled and bore a child
To be their spirit and guiding light"