Columns > Published on April 25th, 2014

Seven Songs, Seven Literary Devices — Celebrating the Poetics of Songwriting

So this article idea started with a recent trip to Seattle (yep, for the AWP Conference). During the trip, I heard the 90s classic “Lump” by The Presidents of the United States of America no less than 4 times! Considering the song is not on regular rotation on any radio station anywhere these days, I thought that was a fairly interesting coincidence, and by the third time I heard it, I actually started to listen to the lyrics.

Lump lingered last in line for brains
And the ones she got were sorta rotten and insane
Small thing's so sad that birds could land
Is lump fast asleep or rockin' out with the band

It occurred to my word nerd brain that these were pretty good examples of the poetic literary devices alliteration and assonance. Then I started thinking about how song lyrics are just another form of literature that employ many of the same tropes and tools used by poets and other writers.

In this article, I will explore some well-known literary concepts as they appear in songs. Of course, for each concept there are thousands of possible examples, and you will probably get a pretty good idea of my musical tastes by the end of it, but it's just for fun.

1) Metaphor

Ok, so I can probably include every song ever written here, as metaphor is a very common trope used in writing of all kinds to convey an idea on multiple levels. In fact, many songs are really just one long metaphor.

That said, I recently heard a song with a lyric that reminded me of the famous Ezra Pound micro poem:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

That line comes from the song “Trance Manual” by John Vanderslice. It uses a similar style of juxtaposition metaphor.

Oh dressed like that
You are a flag of a dangerous nation.

While they may not be one-for-one comparisons—(i.e. Pound's comparison is more visual and Vanderslice's is more conceptual, I mean, what does “the flag of a dangerous nation” look like?)—but they carry the same method of weighting one idea against another to make a point—and make it very quickly.

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2) Personification

Giving human voice to objects and animals is a very common part of many poems and songs. However, when I think of songs that include personification as a major component, Ben Gibbard's relatively recent ode to the Smith Tower in Seattle called “Teardrop Windows” comes to mind. The whole song is written from the point of view of the building—once the tallest building in the West, now dwarfed by nearly every other building in the city (and in every other city).

Teardrop windows crying in the sky
He is all alone and wondering why
Ivory white, but feeling kind of blue
'cause there's no one there to share the view
There's too many vacancies
He's been feeling oh so empty...
When the sun sets over the Sound
He just goes to sleep
Built and boast as the tallest on the coast
He was once the city's only toast
In old post cards, was positioned as the star
He was looked up to with fond regard
But in 1962, the needle made its big debut
And everybody forgot, what it outgrew
He wonders where the workers are
who once filled every floor
The elevators operate,
but don't much anymore..., anymore..., anymore...
Teardrop windows crying in the sky
How the years have quickly passed him by
Gleaming white against the deepest baby blue
He is lonely just like me and you
Cause there's too many vacancies
He's been feeling oh so empty...
When the sun sets over the Sound
He just goes to sleep
There's too many vacancies
He's been feeling oh so empty...
When the maid they turn out the lights
He just goes to sleep

3) Onomatopoeia

The irony of the word “onomatopoeia” is that it is not an example of what it describes—words that sounds like what they describe. For example, “boom,” “ding”, “bark”, etc. are all examples of onomatopoetic words. British rapper M.I.A. has a great example of onomatopoeia in her song “Paper Planes." The words aren't exactly spoken in the song, rather she inserts sound effects, but it works so well and reminds me how music and poetry can blend to create a layered experience.

All I wanna do is (BANG BANG BANG BANG )
And a,((KACHENG)) and take your money
All I wanna do is(BANG BANG BANG BANG )
And a, (KACHENG) and take your money

4) Dramatic Monologue

In poetics, a dramatic monologue is an extended, one-sided conversation by a speaker or character. According to American literary critic M.H. Abrams, a dramatic monologue in poetry should contain three key elements:

  1. A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment.
  2. This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.
  3. The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character.

One of my very favorite dramatic monologues in the English language is “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, in which the haughty Duke admits to having his last wife killed because she smiled at someone besides him. It's lovely and creepy and it sticks with you.

In contemporary music, the best example I can think of is the hilarious almost spoken-word Hump Day Anthem “Business Time” by Flight of the Concords. It has, as you might imagine, a completely different tone (and ending) than Browning's poem, but in some ways they echo each other. One is the tragic story of a woman owned by a ruthless and jealous husband, and the other is an all-too-true characterization of sex and love between modern couples who are settled with each other. It's also very, very funny.

Girl, tonight we're gonna make love. You know how I know? Because it's Wednesday. And Wednesday night is the night that we usually make love. Monday night is my night to cook. Tuesday night we go and visit your mother, but Wednesday night we make sweet, weekly love. It's when everything is just right. There's nothing good on TV. You haven't had your after-work social sports team practice so you're not too tired. Oh's all on. You lean in and say something sexy like, "I might go to bed I've got work in the morning." I know what you're trying to say girl. You're trying to say, "Oh, yeah. It's business time. It's business time."
It's business.
It's business time.
I know what you're trying to say you're trying to say it's time for business it's business time. Ooh!
It's business.
It's business time.
Then we're in the bathroom, brushing our teeth. That's all part of the foreplay. I love foreplay...
a-Chicka-chicka, a-chicka-chicka, a-chicka-chickow-ow-oww!
Then you sort out the recycling. That isn't part of the foreplay process but it is still very important. Next thing you know we're in the bedroom. You're wearing that baggy old ugly t-shirt you got from your work several years ago. Mmm, you know the one, baby...with the curry stain. Oww!
I remove my clothes very, very clumsily, tripping sensuously over my pants. Now I'm naked, except for my socks, and you know when I'm down to just my socks what time it is...
It's business.
It's business time.
You know when I'm down to my socks it's time for business that's why they call it business socks.
It's business.
It's business time.
Ooh, makin' love.
Makin' love for...
Makin' love for two...
Makin' love for two...minutes.
When it's with me, girl, you only need two minutes, because I'm so intense. You say something like, "Is that it?" I know what you're trying to say. You're trying to say, "Aww yeah, that's it." Then you tell me you want some more. Well, I'm not surprised. But I'm quite sleepy.
It's business.
It's business time.
Business hours are over, baby.
It's business.
It's business time.

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5) Point of View

I know, I know. You hate the song, but the recent radio darling by Gotye called “Somebody That I Used to Know” is a good example of a song where two or more points of view are presented. The first few stanzas are sung by the male character lamenting how his ex just cut him off after their breakup. Then the ex chimes in with her own story of how the boyfriend “screwed her over” and didn't live up to his promise to not get “hung up on someone that [he] used to know.” It's a great example of a story told by two sides.

However, my favorite he said/she said song is “Don't You Want Me” by Human League. Let's review:

He said:

You were workin' as a waitress in a cocktail bar

When I met you

I picked you out, I shook you up and turned you around

Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you've got the world at your feet

Success has been so easy for you

But don't forget, it's me who put you where you are now

And I can put you back down too.

But then she rebutted:

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar

That much is true

But even then I knew I'd find a much better place
Either with or without you
The five years we have had have been such good times

I still love you

But now I think it's time I live my life on my own

I guess it's just what I must do

Well, she told him!

Ok, let's sing the rest together..”Don't you want me, baby? Don't you want me, ooh ooh?”

6) Cliche

So cliché may not be a “literary concept” as much as it a crutch (oops, is that a cliché, too?) However, some poems and songs lean on common cliches to make an argument that will be understood by a wide audience. In popular music (of any genre), cliches are easy to find. I don't have a problem with a modest use of cliches when used to create understanding, but sometimes, it goes too far.

Case in point. The song “Roar” by Katy Perry contains at least six cliches just in the first stanza:

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

By the end, I counted 18 (maybe more) horrible cliches. It's so bad that if you made it a drinking game, you'd be looking for a barf bag by the time Ms. Perry sings,

Now I'm floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

7) Synaesthesia

Kanye West sees colors when he hears music. (Of course, you do, Kanye, of course you do...)

He's not alone, though, many “creative types” claim to have synaesthesia, a neurological condition that causes a person to see color when they hear music, see certain numbers or letters, or perceive certain times/days/weeks/months etc. Both Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Nabokov reported having synaesthesia.

As a literary device, synaesthesia can add depth and mysticism to your writing by conjoining multiple senses. A classic example of syneasthetic elements in a poem is Dante's “Divine Comedy,” in which he says they went “back to the region where the sun is silent.” He combines the sound (or lack of sound) with the image of the sun.

In the song “Bold as Love,” Jimi Hendrix sings a rainbow of synaesthetic images. Take this section from the third stanza of the song.

My red is so confident that he flashes trophies of war,
and ribbons of euphoria
Orange is young, full of daring,
But very unsteady for the first go round
My yellow in this case is not so mellow
In fact I'm trying to say it's frightened like me

Care to weigh in?

Of course you do! I had to stop this article somewhere. There are many, many examples of these devices in song as well as other devices such as ode, setting, plot, rhyme, etc. But if you'd like to add your songs to this list, I'd love to hear them!

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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