I often see phrases like these in songs:

I show you all my love.

I love you more than anyone.

My heart clings to you.

All these sentences tell instead of showing, but a lot of songs do that. Is there some kind of standard or convention in songwriting that tells you when it makes sense to tell and not show? Or is songwriting so different from poetry that this rule doesn't make any sense in this context?

1 Answer 1


There are a few songs that use good imagery. Paul Simon, The Boxer;

In the clearing stands a boxer, and a fighter by his trade,

And he carries the reminder, of every glove that laid him down or cut him,

'Til he cried out in his anger and his shame,

I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains,

Yes, he still remains...

It is just very difficult, because there are so few actual words in a song.

Yes, songs are very, very different from poetry, in the same way that movies are very, very different than novels.

Producers spend tens of millions on the score for movies, because it is absolutely proven that Music, done right by professional composers, can consistently arouse the desired emotional context in audiences. Sadness, excitement, gaiety, tension, sympathy. Most movies, if you could watch them without the musical background and just dialogue, would fall flat. The music is like a sneak attack, it can manipulate our emotions without us even realizing it.

The same applies to songs. It is the match of music and words that matter, the music provides the emotional context, and then the meaning of the lyrics can be profound. Read the lyrics of many popular songs, and they are rather bland and repetitive.

Not to say you don't want the poetry and cadence to be right, you want that beat, you want some cleverness in the word choices.

But this is not poetry where the lyrics must stand on their own. The imagery is not as important as expressing the emotion that nails the music, or vice versa, finding the music that reinforces what you want to say.

"I wanna hold your hand" is not much of a poem. It was hit song because the enthusiasm and joyful near out-of-control yearning in the song was evident in the music, at least to the culture of teenage girls at the time, when "holding hands" was a big deal and a true expression of love. "It's such a feeling that my love, I can't hide, I Can't Hide, I CAN'T HIIIIIIDE!"

I mean, c'mon! On paper those lines aren't much as poetry, but with the music rising and the delivery of these lines nearly screamed, this guy's having an orgasm just from holding hands with his girl.

The sound (music and voice, or in acapella, "tune" and voice) carries nearly all of the load in songs as far as creating the emotional landscape. Clever lyrics must match that and can put it over the top, but, unlike written poetry, it is possible to have a hit song with relatively flat, non-poetic lyrics.

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