Tom Odell, Orange Warsaw FestivalTom Odell’s beautiful song ‘Constellations’—from his 2016 album Wrong Crowd—opens with Tom talking to a girl in a busy bar and his lyrics vividly describe the scene. It’s a great example of why songwriters should always show listeners what is happening in their song, rather than just tell them …

“In order to write it,” Tom Odell told Dale Kawashima of SongwriterUniverse magazine, “I had to imagine every detail in that bar—the picture on the wall, the girl’s voice, the jacket on the back of the chair, the gentle hum of the bar, the chair that squeaks, the look on her face.”

He explained: “I almost had to live it in my head in order to write the song. But obviously you can’t get all of that detail in the song. You can only pick a few of those details to sing.”

One of the most frequent mistakes in lyric writing is trying to evoke a strong emotional response in listeners simply by stating what you’re feeling or thinking (for example, “I’m getting mad” or “I’m feeling down”).

This is actually one of the least effective ways to make a lasting connection with the people who hear your song. In the verse lyrics especially, you need to show listeners what the song is about by painting vivid word pictures that describe the physical experience of the emotions you want to convey.

In other words, invite the audience into the world of your song by allowing them to “watch” the story unfold like a movie. If you describe each scene as if you’re looking through the lens of a film camera, you’ll be able to help people ‘see’ and experience what the performer of your song is feeling.

You can also help listeners to enter your song by including descriptions of familiar, tangible objects in your lyrics—such as an empty chair, a wine glass, a framed photograph, and other concrete nouns which refer to physical entities that can be observed by at least one of the senses. These images are more likely to engage listeners than a dull statement of fact.

Legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell has always taken a highly visual approach to her lyrics. “My style of songwriting is influenced by cinema,” she once explained. “It’s very visual. I’m a frustrated filmmaker. You’re scoring the actress, but the actress is singing the lines and trying to get them as conversational as film.”

She added: “A fan once said to me, ‘Girl, you make me see pictures in my head!’ and I took that as a great compliment—that’s exactly my intention.”

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