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Plaster, Mortar, and Cement
By Bill Pere - 09/21/2011 - 03:50 PM EDT

What is Concrete?

A key 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, etc.

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 interpretation.

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 Eyeglasses

If  you create a lyric where 75% of the nouns are concrete, is it going to communicate effectively?

Consider this:

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!


Bill 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 (www.lunchensemble.com).   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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