Brent is a hit songwriter with cuts by Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Lady Antebellum, Joe Nichols, Gord Bamford, Ray Stevens, and more. He’s written a top 5 hit in the US and a #1 in Canada… so far.
Imagine yourself in a darkened movie theater. The movie starts to play, but there is just sound… no picture. You’d be upset, right? Well, then, why do we sometimes write songs that way?
I think the movie analogy is an appropriate one for songwriting.
After all, don’t we basically write 3-minute movies?
Our job is to entertain, to move, or to make the listener think. Just like a movie. But because songs are an audio format, we sometimes forget about the pictures. But they are terribly important!
Take, for instance, “The Thunder Rolls” written by Garth Brooks and Pat Alger. Yes, it’s an oldie, but it’s a classic. This lyric is a movie all by itself. Let’s look at the first verse:
3:30 in the morning / not a soul in sight / the city’s looking like a ghost town / on a moonless summer night / raindrops on the windshield / there’s a storm moving in / he’s heading back from somewhere / that he never should have been / and the thunder rolls
You can SEE that verse. The ghost town, the dark night, the raindrops. Not only that, but you can HEAR it. The thunder rolls. While this lesson will focus on visuals, don’t forget that you have FIVE senses, and you should use as many of them in a song as possible. Let’s look at the second verse:
Every light is burning / in a house across town / she’s pacing by the telephone / in her faded flannel gown / askin’ for a miracle / hopin’ she’s not right / praying it’s the weather / that’s kept him out all night / and the thunder rolls
Again, you can SEE and HEAR that verse. Lights burning, pacing by the phone, the faded flannel gown, the thunder rolls. And the third verse is just as visual as the first two.
It is no accident that some writers refer to sensory details as “furniture.” An empty room is not very inviting. It doesn’t hold your attention very long. However, a room with a great big couch and great art on the walls INVITES you in for a while. It gives you something to look at.
I got this feedback from an old publisher when I didn’t have strong visuals in a song. He said it left him, as he called it, “floating around in space with nothing to hang on to. You’re just telling me how you FEEL.”
There’s a songwriting adage that says, “Don’t TELL me, SHOW me.” Visuals give you something to latch on to. A strong visual or other sensory image at the front end of a song really draws a listener in. It gives you a picture right off the bat.
Take these following first lines from some recent hit songs:
Doublewide Quick Stop midnight T-top Jack in her Cherry Coke town – “American Kids” sung by Kenny Chesney
Quarter in the payphone, clothes drying on the line – “Automatic” sung by Miranda Lambert
Those high heels with that sun dress, turquoise heart hanging ‘round your neck – “My Eyes” sung by Blake Shelton
Summer comin’ through a rolled down window, tearin’ down an almost two lane back road – “We Are Tonight” sung by Billy Currington
And now a few hits that are a couple years back…
Sun shines, clouds rain, train whistles blow and guitars play – “It Just Comes Natural” sung by George Strait
I’ve packed a cooler and a change of clothes – “Want To” by Sugarland
Driving through town, just my boy and me. With a happy meal on his booster seat- “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins
I can take the rain on the roof of this empty house- “What Hurts The Most” Rascal Flatts
She’s a yellow pair of running shoes, a holey pair of jeans- “She’s Everything” Brad Paisley
I could do this for days. Now, I know there are examples out there of purely emotional songs that do well. But if you look at the songs that are not written by the artist or by the producer or by an established hit songwriter, I think you’ll see a trend.
So good luck with your songwriting. Use lots of visuals, and keep at it.
What about you? Do you tend to write with or without a lot of imagery? Are there lines from some other songs you think have great imagery that you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!
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Brent’s Twitter: @Razorbaxter
Brent Baxter Music: http://www.brentbaxtermusic.com
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