Let’s start with a definition. A metaphor is, quite simply, “a thing that is representative or symbolic of something else.” I’ve found that it is precisely in the search to find something “representative” and “symbolic” of your concept where your creative journey begins.
There are countless examples of songs that use metaphor to more powerfully convey a message that might otherwise come across as either boring or cliché. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones comes to mind. I’m almost certain the Stones weren’t actually singing a song about unrefined sugar.
The benefits of using metaphors can be broken down into three main areas. First, they are rich in sensory language. Second, they infuse emotion into otherwise less-inspired subject matter. And, finally, they make any message more memorable.
1. Metaphors are rich in sensory language
Appealing to the five senses—sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch—in any writing reaches your intended audience in a way that non-descriptive language can’t possibly achieve. To demonstrate the power of sensory language, I’m going to start by reminding you of the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Communicating visually is one of the single most effective ways of distilling your message into a form that people will understand quickly and completely. For example, you can either refer to a person as “interesting”—a description so vague that it can be taken as either a compliment or an insult—or you can depict that same person as having a “Mona Lisa smile” which immediately conjures up the mysterious yet knowing expression of that iconic work of art adding both depth and texture to your subject matter.
2. Metaphors infuse emotion into your ideas
At the core of who we are as humans are our emotions. An abundance of emotion can be both overwhelming and off-putting to your intended audience but messages that lack any emotional content are equally unappealing. Metaphors are a powerful way to infuse just the right amount of “why someone should care” into your writing. It’s one thing to say this subject is “urgent” and another entirely to describe that same subject by using the metaphor of the “red, flashing lights and screaming siren on a fire truck.” The emotions that red lights, sirens and fire trucks evoke make your message decidedly more compelling.
3. Metaphors make your message more memorable
Any time you can associate a metaphor with a concept, you greatly improve the chances of that concept being remembered. In these days of shorter and shorter attention spans, anything you can do to grab your intended audience’s attention and make your message memorable will go a long way towards helping you rise above the noise of uninspired day to day communication. By way of another example, you can either write “you’re important to me” which is clear but not exactly memorable writing, or you can say, “you’re the rain that makes my flowers grow” which paints an emotional picture that is much easier to recall.
As Abraham Maslow famously said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” Think of the metaphor and its subsequent improvement of your lyric-writing ability as a new tool in your songwriting toolbox.
Cliff Goldmacher is a GRAMMY-recognized, #1 hit songwriter, music producer and educator who helps business teams and organizations explore their creativity. Through his studios, Cliff provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual, live access to Nashville’s best session musicians and studio vocalists for their songwriting demos. Find out more. You can also download Cliff’s FREE tip sheet “A Dozen Quick Fixes To Instantly Improve Your Songs.”