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Literary Techniques: Which Ones Are Used In Hit Songs?
November 9, 2013

Literary Techniques: Which Ones Are Used In Hit Songs?

By Amanda Williams - November 9, 2013 - Published by Hillbilly Culture LLC




         As songwriters, we’re faced with a challenge when it comes to using descriptive language in our songs. 


         On one hand, we want to be creative and original with our words and imagery, and on the other hand, we know that in order to be commercially successful, we have to “keep it simple stupid.”


         So, how can we have the best of both worlds?  How can we use great descriptive language in our songs, and still write commercially enough to actually get cuts in today’s music market place?


         Let’s look at some examples of hit songs and see what kinds of descriptive language and literary techniques we can find in the lyrics so that we can incorporate those techniques into our own lyric writing.  We’ll examine a current hit, and a few older hits that are considered “classics” to begin our study.


         The number one song on the Billboard Top Country Singles at the time of writing this article is “Better Dig Two” recorded by The Band Perry and written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Trevor Rosen, so we’ll certainly take a look at that one to see what literary techniques they used.  (Also, Trevor is a cowriter of mine so it’s fun to point out his good work.)



Picture of Trevor Rosen performing at the Blue Bar captured as a still image from a video shot by photographer Cari Parker


         The song “I Will Always Love You” written by Dolly Parton spent 14 weeks in 1992 at the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart when it was covered by Whitney Houston in the movie The Bodyguard. 


         Before that, Dolly recorded and released the song twice: first in 1974 when it went to #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, and again in 1982 when it went straight back up to #1. 


         As if that wasn’t enough, Dolly released a duet version with Vince Gill in 1995, and the song went back up to #15.  In addition, the song has been used in lots of movies, and has won tons of awards over the years. 



         We’ll analyze those lyrics to see what kind of techniques Dolly employed, aside from the heart wrenching passion that is undeniably a big part of that song’s timeless appeal.


         Just for good measure, let’s look at one more song to check out the lyrics writing techniques.  The John Lennon song “Imagine” is #3 on the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, and made it to number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. 


          It has also been given various other accolades including: being one of BMI’s 100 most performed songs of the 20th century, #30 on the RIAA’s list of 365 songs of the century, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, and was the best selling single of John Lennon’s solo career. 


          Nobody will object if we include this classic gem into our lyrical analysis exercise. 



         As we look at the language techniques these songwriters used in their chart topping tunes, we can be thinking about ways to add these skills to our tool belt, making our own songs more interesting and commercial.


The obvious one… Rhyme


      Most people agree that a song should rhyme.  Rhyming not only sets up a rhythm for your melody to hang on, but it helps the listener remember your words.  Remember Mother Goose nursery rhymes and the “A, B, Cs”?  Those all rhyme for a reason. 


         Rhyming is a mnemonic device (pronounced like “new-monic”), which is just a fancy word that means “something that helps you remember”.[1]  


         We’re trying to write catchy hit songs here, right?  So why wouldn’t we try to make our lyrics rhyme?  If you want people to sing along, you’d better rhyme your lyrics.


         In our #1 example “Better Dig Two,” the rhyme happens a lot, and the writers go with perfect rhymes pretty consistently. 


         Perfect rhymes, also called true or exact rhymes, are words that have the exact same vowel sound, such as “white” and “night.”  The other kind of rhyme is called a close or near rhyme, or an imperfect rhyme.  These don’t have the exact same vowel sound, or have a different number of syllables, such as “soul” and “all” or “leave” and “believe.”


         The first few rhyming words in “Better Dig Two” are: wed, dead, night, white.  That’s AABB rhyme scheme.


         Next we’ve got: loose, noose, hell, else. 


         Notice all these are perfect rhymes except the last one, “hell” and “else.”


         Rhyming every line like they do in “Better Dig” is called rhyming couplets.  A couplet is when a line rhymes with the line that comes after it in groups of two.  “Twinkle, twinkle little star.  How I wonder what you are.  Up above the world so high.  Like a diamond in the sky,” is another example of couplets.


         It’s interesting to see that most of the song, “Better Dig Two” keeps with the rhyming couplets, only deviating a few times to give a three part line where the third line doesn’t rhyme with anything.  Such as: ground, down, say – which is repeated later in the song as a build up to the chorus.


         Looking at another example “I Will Always Love You,” Dolly uses a lot of simple perfect rhymes as well.


         For example, her first verse finds the following rhyme scheme: “stay, way, know, way.”  That’s AABA rhyme scheme, and you’ll notice the second and fourth words are the same.


         This is a good lesson to those of us who worry about using the same words too frequently in our songwriting, having been told it’s best to avoid such repetition.


         Also, there is a perfect inner line rhyme in the third line: “So I’ll go, but I know.”  The inner line rhyme is repeated in the second verse’s third line as well: “So goodbye, please don’t cry.” 


         This technique of inner line rhyming is a good one to incorporate into your writing when it makes sense, because it strengthens the rhythmic structure of the lyric, giving it a sound support for the meaning to unfold.


         “Imagine” by John Lennon definitely uses a strong rhyme scheme, but is less frequent than the other two examples.  The last words of the first verse end with the words: “heaven, try, us, sky, today,” which gives us the rhyme scheme ABCBD.  Only two out of five words actually rhyme in this structure.


         The second verse is the same pattern with different rhyming words: “countries, do, for, too, peace.”   Only do and too rhyme here, but as you can hear, they are exactly perfect rhymes.


         Looking at Dolly’s chorus in “I Will Always Love You” brings us to another literary technique that hit songwriters know very well: repetition.


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Say it again… Repetition


         “I Will Love You” has the most simple chorus that any song could ever hope for: it simply repeats one line, the title, and depending on whose version you’re listening to, that simple chorus repeats 4 or more times throughout the song.



         Repetition is one of the most effective tools for getting people to remember something.  Talk about mnemonic devices, this one takes the cake.


         If you want your listener to remember something in your lyric, the best way to make sure this happens is to repeat the heck out of it.


         Pop music has embraced this fact with little exception.  You will always find tons of repetition in the Top 40 landscape, a fact that should not go unnoticed by those of us who want to add our names to the “words and music by” hit list.


         Our three examples all take full advantage of this technique of repetition. 


         “Better Dig Two” repeats the pre-chorus “Put me in the ground, put me six foot down, And let the stone say,” twice.  The chorus itself which begins with, “Here lies the girl whose only crutch,” repeats three times.  In addition, there are a few lines that are partially repeated throughout the lyric such as “if the ties that bind ever do come loose,” and of course the title line, “I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two.” 


         Also, another technique that is used to great success is repeating the first two lines of the song at the end as a tag.  “Better Dig Two” does this, repeating the East Tennessee dialect infused, “I told you on the day we wed I was gonna love you ‘til I’s dead.”


         “Imagine” repeats the chorus “You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will live as one,” twice.  It also repeats the single word, the title “Imagine” at least six times during the whole song.


         The moral, don’t listen to people who tell you it’s bad to use the same word over and over.  It’s actually a good thing when you’re doing it on purpose as the literary technique of repetition.


         The kind of repeated word to avoid is one that is not part of the hook which happens to pop up here and there throughout the lyric without adding any more to the overall rhythm, feel, or tone of the tune.  But, as famed songwriter Harlan Howard is credit with having said, “If you need to say sh!# three times before the chorus to get your meaning across, then do it.”




Figurative language… extended imagery


         “Better Dig Two” is a great example of using extended imagery in a song.  The whole thing uses words that draw the listener to think about death, dying, and being buried.


         When a writer uses extended imagery, it really reinforces the main theme of the song in the listener’s mind. 


         Some specific examples in “Better Dig Two” are the words: dead, hangman’s noose, heaven, hell, ground, six foot down, stone, gravedigger, last breath, death, coroner, last rights, and end of time.


         “Imagine” is definitely an example of extended imagery because the whole song is setting up an idealized view of how the world can be if only we see this beautiful vision put before us by Lennon.   The language he uses is very straightforward and doesn’t utilize a lot of flowery words, but using simple statements, he is able to set up a mental picture for the listener of his image of the world.


         “I Will Always Love You” is an amazing example of simplicity.  When you think about it, it’s really a break up song, but how many love songs even come close to the level of sincerity and real passion that this song conveys?  She’s breaking up with him, for goodness sake, and she expresses more positive emotions than negative.


         In fact, it’s interesting to note that while “Imagine” and “Better Dig Two” are both love songs with a very positive message, they use more negative connotations and imagery than “I Will Always Love You” and it’s the only song that really has a sad message.  For example, “Better Dig Two” is essentially a love song disguised as a morbid eulogy, and Imagine says “no” and “not” more than “Imagine.”



Similes and Metaphors… digging deeper


      As you know, similes and metaphors are two related literary techniques.  Both are comparisons, similes using like or as and metaphors not.


         Because metaphors are not quick little one to one comparisons like similes, (i.e. You’re as pretty as a picture, quiet as a mouse) it’s sometimes harder to find them in songwriting.


         Metaphors can be so subtle that they can last for an entire song and never be identified when you’re scouring the song in an analysis.


         In our example songs, there aren’t any similes.


         However, there is one significant metaphor bubbling under the surface that we can note.


         The whole song “Better Dig Two” can be seen as a metaphor comparing what would happen if the happy newly weds ever break up to death.  When you really listen to the song, it’s easy to note an undercurrent of a threat, especially in the line “I’ll go to heaven or I’ll go to hell before I’ll see you with someone else.” 


Other factors… what about the melody?


         Obviously, we can’t just look at these fantastic songs in a vacuum and hope to understand why they made it to the top of the charts.  Melody and performance also had a hand in making the songs what they are.


         Over the course of the next year, we will examine other song lyrics in order to get a better sample of what other techniques are commonly found in hit songs, including examining the melody, chord and song structure, in addition to the figurative language used in the writing.


         If you’d like to get more in depth with your song study, look into attending on of our yearly retreats which focuses solely on song crafting, intensive expressive writing, and mentored and peer to peer co-writing sessions. 


Taking it home… applying what you know


         One of the biggest things to keep in mind as you’re writing your own lyrics is to just go with it.  Analysis and study has its time and place, and are important factors in improving your overall skill set as a songwriter; however, don’t make the mistake of working on craft while you’re actually writing.  What you will end up doing is frustrating the right creative half of your brain by allowing your left analytical side to get in the way.  


         Keep these two activities separate as best you can.  When you’re writing, write.  When you’re working on craft, analyze.  Don’t try to do both at the same time.  Trying to work on craft while you’re writing songs will just frustrate you.


         We’ve all written with new writers who are trying really hard to incorporate every technique they’ve ever learned into your song writing session.  You will end up going against the flow of creativity when you do that, and will only frustrate your efforts to finish a tune.


         The eventual goal is to work on craft so much outside of your daily writing that you are able to incorporate craft techniques into your writing on a subconscious level.  That is, you’ll be throwing metaphors, extended imagery, inner line rhymes, and other literary devices into your songs without even realizing that’s what you’re doing. 


         When you work on craft enough, you will eventually achieve that natural state of writing, and you will achieve the ease of lyric crafting known to master writers.  No longer will you struggle with knowing when and where to use this or that writing tool, you’ll just do it.


         Got another song you’d like to see analyzed?  Have comments or questions about using figurative language?  Use the comments below to speak your mind. 



[1] The word mnemonic comes from the name of the Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, Zeus’s first wife who lived inside his head because he swallowed her. . . and we think we’re creative!




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Hollis Oliver
Nov. 19, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Great stuff Amanda! Maybe some time it would be good (if it's even possible to render insight into it) to discuss why one Publisher or song pitcher will love the structure, rhymes (real or near) metaphors, etc. then the next one will hate it and tell you to drop it or rethink it. I know the obvious answer is personal style & taste, but it seems they would be looking for what will resonate with the listeners out there. The one who loves it might say "I love the way you stated that' when the next will say "I'm completely lost; doesn't make any sense to me!" Anyway, thanks for continuing to educate us and try to help us succeed!

Amanda Williams
April 1, 2015, 10:13 a.m.
All publishers are not created equally, Hollis. Some will never "get it" and some are brilliant.

My dad took a song to a publisher early in his career and the hook was something about learning to see - while the main character was a blind man. [I'll have to ask him the title of that one.] Anyway, the publisher said, "I like that song, but you need to take the blind man out of it."

Well, of course, that would have ruined/changed the whole meaning of the song.

Years later, that same publisher (who was also a writer) called Dad in to help him finish a song that he and his co-writer (Dad's pal) couldn't.

Go figure.

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