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Playing the Field
By Bill Pere - 08/04/2011 - 08:38 AM EDT

     Along with the concrete/abstract balance, one of the most important tools for communicating effectively through lyrics is  the concept of “semantic field”.   It is this aspect of a lyric that determines whether or not it appears focused and cohesive, or diffuse and wandering.  Most English words have multiple meanings.  The particular meaning intended is clarified for the receiver by the other word preceding and following the key word.

     For example the words “set” and “jack” each have more than 20 meanings.  The sentences “That set of Jack’s was the best tennis he’s ever played” and  “This set of jacks is the child’s favorite play toy” are made clear only by the words other than  set and jack.  Those other words provide context and define the semantic fields being used.

    Key words in a  lyric should stay with a single semantic field and not bounce around... i.e., if you’re writing about apples as the semantic field, talk about Delicious and Macintosh and cider,  not oranges and pears.  If you’re writing about fruit  (a broader semantic field),  write about apples, oranges, and pears, not carrots, celery, and turnips.  If  you’re writing about edible plants (a still broader semantic field) then you can mix apples, oranges and carrots, but not poison ivy or redwood trees.   If you’re writing about all plants...well, you get the idea.   The semantic field is defined by the main metaphor of the song, and straying outside that semantic field essentially means you’re mixing metaphors, which generally dilutes the impact of your lyric.  So it’s not enough just to balance concrete and abstract references, but they should all be consistent within the context defined by the governing  metaphor of the song.

     Of course we have exceptions. There are times where it is highly desirable to switch semantic fields in midstream...  this is the essence of punning, irony,  and related wordplay.  It can be  the source of memorable titles and lyrical hooks.  “We live in a two-story house” is an example.  By itself,  this sentence places “story” in the semantic field of “words relating to houses and buildings”.  But the rest of the lyrics, dealing with deception and cheating, create a semantic field where “story” means a lie or deceitful tale.   Switching semantic fields can be done locally (within a line or verse) or globally (from one verse to another).   In a song about going back in time to change the mistakes in your life, the line “An hour, a minute, a second chance”  clearly uses “second” simultaneously in two ways, both of which are embodied in the premise of the song  (time, and correcting mistakes).  

This is the key point... it is not good writing to use double meanings just to be clever;  Both meanings of a word must be fully supported by the song and the lyric must contain words from both semantic fields.  This creates a no-lose situation for you-- the listener gets two chances to hear it right, and if they only get one of the two, it still makes sense, because other parts of the lyric are supporting the meaning.  If they get both meanings, they appreciate your crafting that much more.   Another example:

Ten thousand faces, I see only yours

I hear your heartbeat over all the applause

You are my shining sun,  but everybody thinks it’s me who’s the star

It’s you helped me get this far...

The word “star” has both meanings clearly referenced in the rest of the verse (i.e.,  applause and sun)

     It takes a good deal of practice and craft to do this effectively, and  here in its entirety is one of the very best examples, written by Greg Ham and recorded by Men at Work.

Snakes and Ladders  (©EMI-Blackwood Music)

I could stand but I don’t like the feeling

I could fall but I’m always on the floor

You can make a million staring at the ceiling

You can break your back and still be poor


One for the liar, one for the cheat

One for the man who you’ll never meet

He saw the action and a portion of pie

He’ll be there waiting when your big chance comes by


There's a snake at the top of every ladder

Who will tell you that he’s your best friend

Everyone important needs an adder,

But subtraction gets you in the end..


One for the liar, one for the thief

One for the man whose time is so brief

He saw the action and a portion of pie

He’ll be there waiting when your big chance comes by

     This whole song converges at that one key word “adder”,  which is a kind of snake,  and which is also used in the math sense of an accountant who adds up your money.  The snake reference is supported immediately before the word, and the math reference is supported immediately after (“subtraction”).  Let’s look at some of the craft elements of this lyric: The title immediately sets up the song premise, that when you climb the ladder of success, there are people waiting to prey on you to get a piece of your pie instead of one of their own.  The title is a common phrase based on the name of the popular children’s game (also known as “Chutes and Ladders”).  The chorus explicitly supports the premise, and sets up both semantic fields for the key word to follow.    Notice the technique of subtly changing the chorus the second time around to balance the familiar with the new.   The second verse is a shining example of lyric craft.  Not only does it effectively switch semantic fields,  but the word it pivots on, “adder”, is an unusual, fresh , and memorable word.  The “snake” reference is literal and concrete, while the “accountant” reference is figurative and abstract.   An excellent lyric.

Another example of this type occurs in the song by Terry Kirkman (The Association) "Requiem for the Masses".  Here, the semantic pivot is "masses", which can be interpreted to mean either the Catholic church ceremony, or the population of a country.  Either interpretation is well supported in the lyric which simultaneously tells two stories.

Thus, once you’ve gotten a handle on balancing concrete and abstract references,  you can turn your attention to semantic fields, first to insure consistency of the metaphors you use, and then for seasoning your songs with wordplay that enhances the communication effectiveness of your lyric.  And if it all works out, you’ll have to hire an adder of your own...but watch out for adders.  

For more on this topic see

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 working with top industry pros as a songwriter, performer, recording artist and educator,  Bill is well known  for his superbly crafted  lyrics, with lasting impact.   Bill has released 16 CDs, and is President of the Connecticut Songwriters Association.  He 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 reposted without permission of the author. Reproduction for educational purposes is permitted with proper attribution.  For  workshops, consultation, critiques,  or other songwriter services,  contact Bill via his web sites, at,, and

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