Plaster, Mortar, and Cement
By Bill Pere - 09/21/2011 - 03:50 PM EDT
What is Concrete?
element for making lyrics communicate effectively is the use of concrete
references. A concrete reference does not mean
plaster, mortar, or cement...although those actually are concrete references in
the lyrical sense, as well. Simply
stated, a concrete reference is something that is easily accessible to at least
one of your senses...you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste it without a great deal of effort (you can “see” a
galaxy using a telescope, but it is not readily accessible to your eyes,
thus it is not really a concrete reference). Examples of concrete references are: Rain, trees, barstools, squeaks, perfume, broccoli, velvet, wood,
Why are they important? They make your lyric focused, clear and
real, instead of vague and subject to misinterpretation. When you say “She watched TV”, most listeners will know what a TV
is... they may visualize different kinds of TV’s, but
unless it really matters to your song that it’s a 42-inch Sony or a 32-inch
Magnavox, you don’t have to say
anything more. You and
your listener are communicating on the same wavelength. (If you were writing an advertising
jingle about a particular brand of TV, then it would
matter what kind it was.)
The necessary level of detail is determined by the ultimate purpose of
your song, i.e., what do you intend to say to a listener? This is a critical first step, because
if you aren’t absolutely sure what you intend
to say, then certainly nobody else will be.
The following are not concrete references: happiness, truth, beauty, feeling,
anger, soul, and love. But, you say, you can feel anger and love, and see
beauty, so why aren’t they concrete?
Because they are not perceived through
the five senses...they are felt emotionally or “seen” in the mind... Emotional
feeling is not the same as touching, and visualizing in the mind is not the same
as seeing with the eyes.
Happiness, truth, beauty,
and love can mean extremely different things to different people, thus, when used in a lyric, the message a listener receives may not
be the one you mean to send. The bottom line is that 7 out of 10 people prefer to give and receive information in concrete terms. They do not relate and connect to abstract, conceptual words.
This of course does not mean that you
should never use these kinds of words.
Of course you should. There
are classics which use only words of concept or feeling, but it takes a great
deal of skill and effort to do this and achieve both clear and a fresh
way of saying it (the line “What’s love, but a second-hand emotion” is a good
example of something not concrete, yet original). You gain a great deal of choice and potential for
originality when you mix ideas and feelings with direct sensory context. Remember the six “W’s” -- your lyric
needs to address the Who, What
When, Where, Why and hoW of the situation you are singing
about. The assumption here
is that you want the listener to understand what you mean, as opposed to
giving them the freedom to interpret whatever they wish, even if it’s not what
you are trying to say. If
you in fact want to let a listener interpret your words as they please, not as you want, then
you’re better off being as vague as possible.
Some songwriters at critique sessions
present lyrics and indicate that they want them “open to interpretation”. Can this really be true? Consider normal conversation... if you
are talking to someone, telling them about something you’ve done or how you
feel, and if they continually misinterpret everything you say, it’s extremely frustrating. When presenting a song, you are trying
to express something that you feel is important enough to have moved you to
write about, so why would you want any listener to misinterpret it? This should not be confused with
wanting feedback as to how a listener understands (or misunderstands) what you
are saying to see if it is coming across clearly. Seeking feedback is not the same as being open to
If a listening audience gives feedback
to the effect that your message is unclear, you have two choices: (1) re-write the song to try again to get your message
across or (2) leave your lyric the
way it is and decide that it isn’t important for it to be understood. Which would you choose?
There are many immortal songs written about love and truth and beauty, but many of the great ones, present those concepts in
very concrete terms. The
classic What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss and Bob
Thiele, is not a concrete title.
Since there are 5 billion people in the world, there are 5 billion
interpretations of what “world” means... the access path is through the mind,
not the senses. But the way the
lyricist describes what makes this a wonderful
world is through concrete sensory images like skies of blue, fields
of green. This enables us to
understand and share his vision of “world”, and since it was similar enough to what
millions of people believed or wanted to believe about the “world”, the song
has become a classic.
How do you know if you’re being
concrete or not? A good practice is to count up all the nouns in your lyric and
see how many of them are readily accessible to at least one of your
senses. If it’s less than
50%, you may not have a clearly
focused lyric. Remember too that
it’s easy to go overboard the other way.
If it’s too concrete, it could be bland and boring. That’s where adjectives go to
work. After you’ve identified each
noun, ask yourself how many of the senses can
perceive it. As a rule of thumb,
the more sensory paths you provide, the better chance you have of exciting a
listener. Every person has a primary sense, and it’s not the same for everyone,
Although most people tend to be visual, it should not be assumed that it is
true for all people. A barstool can be seen and touched by two sensory
paths. But a squeaky barstool can also be heard...a third sensory path. If you say “the leathery stink of a
squeaky barstool”, you have not added a fourth sensory path to barstool. You now have a new concrete reference,
“stink” , with one sensory path i.e., smell, with “leathery” as a well focused adjective which helps
define the nature of the stink.
The phrase as a whole now has four sensory paths.
Beware of “Wet Cement”...
Sometimes a reference seem to be
concrete or seem to have multiple sensory paths, but is in fact fooling
you. Consider “She broke my
heart”... heart is a noun but if it’s a concrete reference here, then you are
dead and your girlfriend is capable of gory violence. The way it is used here is not as the muscle that pumps blood, but as
a substitute for a feeling. Also,
the heart is not readily accessible to any of
your senses without a stethoscope, x-ray machine, or scalpel.
Telescope, Microscope, or Just
If you create a lyric where 75% of the nouns are concrete, is
it going to communicate effectively?
Your love is like a hot dog, like a sprinkler on the lawn,
The withered grass is mustard, and
can’t live when you are gone...
All concrete references except “love”,
but something’s not right (unless we’re aiming for the Dr. Demento Show)
The final aspect here is that of scope,
and semantic field, and we will discuss these further in other
articles. When trying to
stay focused in your lyric, think of a zoom lens on a camera. It can move in
and out within a range. It cannot
span the entire spectrum between star-studded galaxies and microscopic
molecules. You need to pick
a range of focus, and then
maintain the relation between that level of focus and the consistency of the references you use. If you write about apples, talk
about Macintoshes and Delicious, but don’t talk about oranges. If you write about fruit, talk
about apples and oranges, but not about carrots. If you write about plants, write about fruits and
vegetables, but not about elephants
(or about lawns and grass, but not hot dogs). Concrete references and
internal consistency give you solid and consistently effective lyrics!
Pere was named one of the "Top 50 Innovators, Groundbreakers and Guiding
Lights of the Music Industry"
by Music Connection Magazine. With more than 30 years in the music business, as a recording
artist, award winning songwriter, performer, and educator Bill is well known for his superbly crafted lyrics, with lasting impact. Bill has released 16 CD's , and
is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association. Bill is an Official Connecticut State
Troubadour, and is the Founder and Executive Director of the LUNCH Ensemble
Twice named Connecticut Songwriter of the Year, Bill is a qualified MBTI practitioner, trained by the Association
for Psychological Type. He is a
member of CMEA and MENC, and as
Director of the Connecticut Songwriting Academy, he helps develop young talent in songwriting, performing, and learning about the
music business. Bill's song
analyses and critiques are among the best in the industry. Bill has a graduate degree in Molecular
Biology, an ARC Science teaching certification, and he has received two awards
for Outstanding contribution to Music Education.
© Copyright 2011 Bill Pere. All Rights Reserved.
This article may not be reproduced in any way with out permission of the
author. For workshops, consultation, performances, or other songwriter services, contact Bill via his web sites, at www.billpere.com,
www.ctsongwriting.com, and www.lunchensemble.com
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