Songs have a beautiful capacity to take you places.
When you hear a song that you used to listen to all the time, you suddenly remember the exact moment in time – the way the light looked, what you were wearing, maybe even the exact smell of something. You could say “The song remembers when.”
One of the most powerful ways to affect people through songs is through the use of our five senses.
The Show, Don’t Tell Philosophy
The eminent and beloved Berkley songwriting teacher, Pat Pattison, has a lot to say on the subject of writing memorable lyrics. He has whole courses dedicated to the topic. Without giving too much away – you absolutely have to take one of his seminars if you ever have the opportunity! – I wanted to talk about his “Show, don’t tell” approach to lyrics.
A major trap that writers are fell into a lot of the time, is telling stories.
When you tell your stories, your lyrics tend to come out a little bland. You’re simply stating what’s happening as it happened. Maybe you ahve some dialog. But all in all, there are no gripping details. Like this stanza, for example:
I want to drink that bottle of liquor,
Sitting on the table in front of me,
Like it was placed there.
I want to numb my pain.
These lines are very literal. We’re getting a play-by-play of what’s going on inside the singer’s mind. It’s honest, but it’s not terribly interesting. You’re simply being told how the singer feels.
Now, let’s look at a new set of lyrics:
All dressed up in a pretty black label,
Sweet salvation on a dining room table,
Waiting on me,
Where the numb meets the lonely.
Do you recognize these lyrics? They’re from Miranda Lambert’s latest single, “Vice,” which I think has some of the most powerful lyrics on the radio right now. She isn’t telling you what she’s feeling, she’s showing you. You know what’s going down because of the imagery she’s set up.
The song appeals to your visual sense with the use of words like pretty black label, dressed up, and dining room table. You even get a sense of taste when you take all dressed up in a pretty black label and use it in the same verse as sweet salvation. You know she’s talking about some kind of liquor, without her having to say “bottle of liquor.” You can probably even visualize a bottle of Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker.
Now, did you get that same kind of visual from the first set of lyrics?
Nah. No way.
That’s because there was nothing in that first set of lyrics for you to grab on to. You were reading a narrative. In the second set, you’re there. The scene is set. Your sense of sight and taste have been written to.
That is showing instead of telling.
If you want to read more about writing amazing lyrics from Pat Pattison, check out his book, “Writing Better Lyrics.” It’s pretty much required reading for songwriters:
When you write lyrics, try writing to the five senses
You might be thinking, “Ok weird, how the heck do you write a serious song that talks about smells?”
Valid. I hear you. But it’s totally possible! You absolutely can bring in certain smells, feelings, or sounds without sounding too literal or just plain weird. Take Sam Hunt’s “Raised On It” for example. It’s full or all sorts of sensory pieces, including smell, and it’s all very appealing:
Car wash at the custom tent,
Sticky quarters and pine tree scent…
You’re there. You know exactly what that pine tree scent smells like! And picking an old quarter out of your center console on a hot summer’s day.
The next song you sit down to write, ask yourself: Am I just telling someone this story? Or really showing it to them?