SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images

A while ago I started an article about SPECIFICITY in lyric writing (see post: Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas). The main conclusion of that article was to pick a central idea for your section, and make sure all the images and language are working towards supporting that main idea.

Another aspect of ‘getting specific’ with lyrics is the specificity of the images that you present. That’s what I’d like to have a look at right now!

SPECIFICITY #2: Getting Specific About Images


  • Your images are too broad, vague, or generic.
  • The images do not fully use your totally unique perspective of the world.


  • Use Sense Writing to describe the scenario.
  • Sift through your Sense Writing for unique images or word combos.
  • Use a Worksheet to find interesting word and rhyme pairings.

Let’s use another dummy lyric to work with:


[Verse 1]

The party was loud when

You walked into the room

I caught a glimpse of you

And thought ‘you’ll be mine soon’

Okay, so the lyric presents a decent opening idea, presenting the scenario, but in a very ho-hum kind of a way. It could use some spicing up. This is where I (and many many many songwriters) use Sense Writing to delve into our senses and uncover unique and compelling ways and words to describe a common or universal experience (see Post: Juicy Details for a description of Sense Writing).

DO IT NOW: Spend 5 minutes sense writing on ‘party’.

Here is my writing…

Party… Slumped on the distended belly of a couch in the corner, bored. The satisfying pop of opening wine bottles followed by the gulp gulp gulp of filling glasses, the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table. Cigarette smoke mingled with the high pitched female laughter bubbling sneaking through the opening in the sliding doors. I am sitting sipping on a beer that somehow becoming more watery, more bitter and lemony as I reach the bottom. Accidentally moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before, possibly letting out a stifled laugh, the people in my field of vision, who swim in and out of being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch, to being secret agent spies with hidden personal worlds of mystery and ambiguity, and sneaking layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness. And then you enter the room, and it feels like the decibels descend and there is a warm hum in my eardrum, and it seems like you are taller than everybody else, that there is a spotlight somewhere above you melting light into your immediate orbit. I am looking at you trying to use eyeballs as magnets, sure that if you look at me that particles will connect and you will feel the energy like a string of fate, like a tightrope strung up between us…

Now I am going to ‘mine’ my sense writing for words, images, and phrases that I like.

belly of a couch in the corner (bored in a rhyme)

the woody snap of beer bottles being hammered onto the table

moving my lips to the memory of conversations I’ve had at parties before

being characters in a movie that I am watching from the couch

layers of depth caked in a crust of party-induced silliness

the decibels descend

warm hum in my eardrum

spotlight somewhere above you melting light

eyeballs as magnets

tightrope strung up between us

Let’s see if I can use what I have here to write a new verse:

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations


At this point, I am looking for my final line of this verse. I am going to create a Worksheet for two rhyme options: scene, and conversation.

What is a Worksheet? A worksheet is basically a list of possible rhymes for key words in your lyric. It is not ALL the available rhymes, but rather rhymes that are evocative, or related to the idea or image you are playing with. Here we go:

Scene: screen, sheen, clean, Al Green, pristine, routine, Codeine, beguine, marine, machine, slot machine, obscene, magazine, tambourine, trampoline, nicotine, quarantine, seem, scheme, redeem…

Conversation: narration, creation, fixation, vibration, dilation, inflation, location, relocation, rotation (heavy-rotation), relation, flirtation, affectation, speculation, decoration, mediation, celebration, revelation, patron, saying, staying, playing, shaken, taken, takin’…

Now I am going to use some of these to see if I can come up with a satisfying line.

I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Removed from the hum of the celebration


I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Falling into my usual routine


I’m slumped in the belly of a couch in the corner

At a party full of people playing out a movie scene

I’m moving my lips to the memory of conversations

Stuck in the rounds of mental quarantine

I could write another 20 of these, but I kind of like the last one, and more than that, any of these three is a drastic improvement on the original. It is much more evocative of the environment, and the narrator’s state of mind and mood, and sets it up nicely to develop the story from there.

Getting Fruitful Feedback – (Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this weekend!)

One the most important things in the journey of a songwriter is being part of a community who can give you helpful feedback. Your friends, parents and audience will always be more than willing to tell you how much they love your songs (aka how much they just love you), and sometimes how much they don’t. Alas, while this feedback can be a joyous validation or an ego-rattling slap, it rarely helps your songs actually improve. There is hope! Other songwriters with the experience and vocabulary of songwriting are often the best community to tell you a) what works and why, and b) what could use development and why. The WHY part is so important, and requires more than just “I wasn’t feeling it there”.

I encourage you to seek out opportunities to be with other songwriters, whether it’s local organizations, regional camps or workshops, or annual conferences. Berklee College of Music has a wonderful online school (

In the spirit of this community, I am hosting the first Eagle Rock Songwriters Retreat this coming Sunday, in east Los Angeles. If you are in the area and would like to come along, follow this link:

Paul Simon on Listening to the Critics

I don’t think it’s very good for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what critics say. It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. And can’t know what they’re talking about, by definition. Unless you write songs and make records, you just really can’t know what it’s about. A critic is not capable of distinguishing between a safe move that is executed, and an interesting mistake. An interesting mistake is by far the more valuable.

From ‘Songwriters on Songwriting’, by Paul Zollo.

Song Starter: De-Tune Your Guitar

If you write on the guitar, try tuning the strings into an unfamiliar tuning. You will start hearing sounds you like rather than sounds that you might think are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I find doing this helpful, particularly when I start to get frustrated about doing the same thing over and over on the guitar, or too caught up in music theory. It gets me back into my creative right brain. If you play the piano, try picking up another instrument!

Specificity #1: Getting Specific About Ideas

Whether you are reading songwriting books, watching videos, going to workshops, in school, or paying close attention to excellent songwriters, you will eventually hear the same message again and again: MAKE YOUR LYRICS SPECIFIC.

This can be frustrating and confusing. At some point, you will write a song that you think is specific, only to be given feedback that it is ‘not detailed enough’. You might then right a song that is loaded with details, and told that it ‘isn’t universal enough’.

What’s going on? Part of what is going on is that there are DIFFERENT TYPES OF SPECIFICITY. The next few Insight Posts will take them one at a time. Today, let’s look at…



  • Your song is about many different ideas, or;
  • You are attempting to write ‘THE’ song about ‘regret’ (for example), that includes every sentiment or idea you have ever had about regret (or love, or travel, or growing old….).


  • Make a decision about the CENTRAL IDEA of your song. Decide what your song is about.
  • If your song is about ‘love’, which aspect of love is it about? Don’t make it about the full gambit or trajectory of winning to losing love. Pick one moment or aspect, and hone in all your ideas to bring that one CENTRAL IDEA into the spotlight.

Let’s use some pretend lyrics to put this into action.



Love is a drug that’ll hook you in

Love is a thief that will rob you blind

Love is book in a foreign language

With a meaning that’s hard to find

Here we have an interesting series of images and ideas, that are all somewhat ‘specific’. All the ideas are centered around the elusive nature of love, SO WHAT’S WRONG HERE? There are 3 (or even 4) separate ideas that are each competing for attention, without fully committing to one of them. Is it the addiction that you are focusing on? Is it the self-deception? Or is it the mystery? These are three separate songs! Once you decide which ONE you are writing about, you can focus into the details around the one specific aspect you are writing about.


Love is a thief that sneaks into your house

Steals your heart and robs you blind

Leaves you wondering what you even had in the start

Love is a thief in the night

NOW the idea is more specific because it is focused on ONE central idea.

TO DO: Take a look at a song you have written that you feel could use some revising. Have a look at your chorus (if it has one), and analyze how many different ideas are present in the chorus alone. See if you can revise it to focus on one, and make any other necessary revisions to your other sections.

Popular Themes in Songs for Film and TV

Songwriting is much like script writing in a lot of ways. Movies and TV shows always have a different set of characters, situations, tone and ambiance…but the reason that we watch them are for the developments and changes in characters, and most importantly for the relationships. A lot of the relationships involve chemistry, infatuation, coming together, growing apart, fear of loss, letting go, nostalgia….

Songs are very much the same thing – taking common and universal experiences and emotions, and using a unique and interesting set of characters, scenarios and timbre to express them. Luckily, the Film and TV market desperately needs music and songs to accompany the visual scenarios. At the Taxi Road Rally in November 2010, Robin Frederick, author of ‘Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film and TV’, enumerated some of the common themes for which Music Supervisors are constantly on the prowl:


–       love relationships (all kinds; romantic relationships and all the stages involved in those; family love; friendship love)

–       becoming and individual (coming of age)

–       uncertainty

–       fear of letting go

–       discovery

–       conflict (frustration, anger, hurt, rebelliousness, helplessness)

–       good times and celebrations (joy, comfort, giving, sharing)

–       rebellion

–       isolation (nobody knows who I am)

Try using any one of these as a starting point for a song. Use the tools of Sense Writing to spend 10 minutes using one of these themes as your launch pad, and see what images, sounds, smells, tastes and visceral descriptions are conjured.

Listen to What People are Listening to

In 2008, I had a extraordinary experience of spending a week with John Mayer, working on tunes and at the end of the week taking a song into the studio and having Mayer produce it. I made a point of absorbing as much as I could during that week. It was visceral and obvious that Mayer has certain habits that contribute to his success.
The first habit I noticed is most likely one shared by many successful people: being prepared, doing your research, and knowing your audience – whatever it is. It was obvious that this permeates Mayer’s whole mode of existing. He has an incredibly broad vocabulary on popular music over the past 40 years. He referenced artists, bands and songs, could play most of what he was referencing, and was obviously literate in it, not in an academic way, but in the way of someone who has a ‘sticky curiosity’ – a genuine interest that is aggressive and passionate. He makes it his business to know EVERYDAY what is in the Top 20 – not to imitate by any means, but to know what the trends are. To know what people are listening to, no matter what you think of it. Ultimately you’ll have your tastes and preferences, whatever they are, but a good exercise as a musician and songwriter is to listen to everything (especially the popular stuff) and think to yourself: ‘What is one thing that is good about this? What’s one thing I would do differently? Why do people like this?’

No one is ever going to force you to write ‘Top 40’ music, but having an active curiosity about what people like and why they like it can help bridge the gap between your own authentic voice, and effectively communicating what you have to say to a listening audience.

Juicy Details

The first and most basic tool in your kit as a songwriter is your own completely unique perspective and experience of the world. Maybe you have thought ‘every song has already been written’, and it has! The universal themes of uncertainty, coming of age, love won and lost, rebellion, frustration, fear of letting go, discovery, conflict, isolation, celebration and ceremony continue to squeeze our little pink hearts and tickle our minds into reverie and action. The task of each songwriter is to imbue those universal experiences with the juicy details that make up your specific experience of them!

The best way to turn on you inner songwriter is an exercise I call Sense Writing. With Sense Writing, you will choose one image to concentrate your writing on. Once you have chosen your image, you will spend 10 minutes with your pen on the page describing this image and associations with the image. However, you will focus your writing on using your SENSES to describe it.

As songwriters, we are a special bunch who are blessed with not just five, but an alarming SEVEN senses with which to spin our word pictures! The SEVEN senses of the songwriter are:








Organic? Kinesthetic? Waaa….? I hear you ask…

The organic sense is the feeling and sensation you experience inside your body. When you are nervous or excited, this might be the shot of adrenalin that shoots like fireworks from your stomach to your throat. If you are drinking coffee, this might be the warm trickle that cascades down your throat, and puddles in the center of your stomach.

The kinesthetic sense is triggered anytime your perceptual relationship to the outside world is affected. This can be hard to grasp, and is best shown by examples. Some good examples might be dizziness or vertigo cause by heights – like when you are walking across a bridge and you look down between the slats at your feet. It might also be the dizziness you feel after a few glasses of wine, when you lay your head on a pillow and world starts to swim around you. It might also be when you are on a train looking out the window, and the external world seems to rush, like a horizontal waterfall, in a streaming shower of green and brown. Or even better – your kinesthetic sense goes wild when another train passes you by faster than the train you are on, and you all of a sudden get the sense that your train is travelling backwards!


Sense writing should be no longer than 10 minutes. Do not stop writing! But do not write past 10 minutes! Sense Writing is a daily practice, and is best done in the morning.

Before you start, a good idea is to write the 7 senses at the top of your page, and make sure that you hit on as many as possible during the 10 minutes.

Here are some examples of images to get you going:

  • Objects: coffee cup; favorite t-shirt; couch; tree
  • People: teacher; doctor; dentist; chain smoker; professional dancer; actor on a stage
  • Places: airport; bus station; bed room; botanical gardens; circus
  • Moments: coming home at 3am; New Year’s Eve; my 7th birthday party

How to use Sense Writing

  • daily exercise – activate your inner writer.
  • mine your sense writing and collect your golden nuggets in a separate notebook.
  • when you have a song idea, sense write on objects, images, or people related to your idea.
  • when you have a section in a song, and you are looking for unique, interesting and vivid imagery for that section.