We’ve all been there: we’ve written a song, the metaphors make sense within the context and they express your idea well. We bring that song to a mentor or friend and they frown, a little confused: they’ve been thrown off by the fact that the Verse was talking about city life, but the Chorus mentioned oceans and waves.
A metaphor is a comparison between two objects to describe them in a way that would be factually false. Typically we say, “My head is on fire” if we’re using a metaphor (if we’re using a simile, it will sound like, “My head feels like it’s on fire.”) We make that connection with the understanding that a head isn’t really on fire, but the intensity of it is far greater than describing it simply as “painful”.
Similarly, we use imagery and symbols in songs to convey meaning. For example, in “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo, the driver’s license is mentioned not in comparison to anything else, but to symbolize a milestone the character couldn’t share with their ex-partner. She goes on to use images of driving, streets, stop signs, etc.
“drivers license” is an excellent example of matching metaphors. Throughout the song, she remains consistently in the realm of driving and doesn’t venture out to other subjects, like clubbing or nature. If she had, it would have felt out of place.
Even when we are not writing songs that centre around a certain image, it is still important to use metaphors that match. The setting matters, and unless the character is literally travelling in the song, it probably won’t make sense. Here is a way to figure out good metaphors within the realm of your song’s story:
1. Think of the images associated with your song
There is probably at least one image, even if it is really subtle. You don’t need to expand on that imagery in the song, but brainstorm a few more images/objects that are associated with that image.
2. Choose which metaphor supports the emotion
What is the overarching emotion of your song? Alternatively, what is the emotion you are trying to describe in that one line you’re working on? Match that emotion with your object/image.
3. Check all your other images/metaphors/symbols/etc.
Make sure the listener won’t be transported too much within the context of your song. Edit later to check for these things.
When matching metaphors and other literary devices, it’s important not to overdo it. Many great songs don’t use metaphors at all and opt for more conversational lyrics. Focus on getting emotion and meaning across and make that judgement to whether you need a specific metaphor to have a listener understand.