Kim Lajoie's blog

Poetic devices

by Kim Lajoie on April 25, 2011

Who here writes lyrics? Who here works with lyricists?

If so, you might have experienced the difference between functional lyrics and poetic lyrics.

Functional lyrics tick all the boxes – they make sense, they rhyme in all the right places, they tell the story, etc. But somehow they’re boring. They don’t move you. They’re not special. Poetic lyrics, on the other hand, are special. They speak with a unique voice. They’re fun or witty or profound. They’re not just words – they’re magic.

Sometimes you might be working with some lyrics that need a touch more poetry. But what is poetry? What makes lyrics poetic? You need to employ poetic devices. Broadly speaking, poetic devices are writing techniques that make the text more musical by crafting the sound and rhythm and the way the words form meaning in our minds. If you’re working with lyrics that need a bit more magic, try these techniques:

  • Imagery – Evoke the senses! Don’t just write about what happened – write about how it felt, how it smelled, how it looked. How did it taste? What did it sound like? Engage the listener’s imagination and prompt them to imagine with their senses. The more you do this, the more evokative and immersive your lyrics will be.
  • Metaphor – Write about a subject as if it’s something else. This is a way to add a lot of nuance and meaning to a passage without getting overly wordy or bogged down in description. Also, by linking two otherwise-unrelated ideas, your listener’s mind will be more engaged and stimulated.
  • Simile – This is very similar to a metaphor, except that with a simile you are making the comparison or likening explicit. As a simple example, ‘your love is the ocean’ is a metaphor, and ‘your love is like the ocean’ is a simile. Similes often work well on a smaller scale – just a line or two, whereas metaphors can be effective for whole sections or even whole songs (or more!).
  • Personification – Give a non-person entity human characteristics. Non-person entities can be objects, emotions, locations or even ideas. These can be given human characteristics such as desire, speech, or even emotions. This gives a greater sense of life and fantasy to the lyrics.
  • Point of view – Tell the story from another angle. Often a story can be completely transformed by simply telling it from another point of view. To give a boring story an interesting twist, try telling it from an unconventional point of view. Including multiple points of view within a single song can easily make it too fragmented, but can be very exciting if done well.
  • Juxtaposition – Putting two unlike or unlikely things together. This can be in the content of the story – for example by combining themes. It can also be done musically – for example by combining different composition techniques or singing techniques. Juxtaposition works in a similar way to metaphors – the unlikely combination of ideas engages and stimulates the listener’s mind.
  • Alliteration – Repeating the first consonant. Alliteration allows words to affect a listener by always drawing attention and asserting the added instances of a sound (sorry!). This is particularly effective for significant lines – such as those in a chorus. Alliteration emphasises strings of words and helps make them more memorable.
  • Rhymes – Rhymes are the most common poetic device used in songs. Most songs have s clear rhyming pattern – commonly the last syllable of a line will rhyme with the last syllable of the next line. Also common is the last syllables of lines 1+3 rhyming, and the last syllables of lines 2+4 rhyming. Try to go beyond this – try different rhyming patterns, or even multi-syllable rhymes. Rap music is known for pushing the boundaries of how rhymes can be used.

You’re probably already be familiar with some of those techniques, but hopefully this list will give you some ideas for taking your lyrics to the next level.

Also, keep in mind that good lyrics aren’t always necessary! It’s possible to get away with poor or unimaginative lyrics if other aspects of the song are strong.

-Kim.

2 thoughts on “Poetic devices

  1. Dave King says:

    All excellent suggestions!

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