Speaking figuratively in music is an often misunderstood phrase. Simply put, it is the language, or words used to create an association, an image, or some other effect on the listener. And this association goes beyond what is considered to be the literal meaning of the words used.
Figurative is, therefore, the opposite of literal, which refers to the meaning gained from the strict use of the words spoken or sung. So, if we are to look at the best songs with figurative language, we will look for songs that may have a hidden meaning.
- Just The Classics?
- Top 10 Best Songs With Figurative Language
- Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 by Pink Floyd
- What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstong
- American Pie by Don McLean
- Killing Me Softly With His Song by Roberta Flack
- Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
- Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
- Working Class Hero by John Lennon
- Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
- I Am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkel
- The Sounds of Silence by Simon And Garfunkel
- Want to Discover More Songs with Deeper Meanings?
- Best Songs With Figurative Language – Final Thoughts
Just The Classics?
We all know the works of Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Dickens, etc. They were all masters of using different techniques to enhance their writing and tell the tale.
But what about today?
In the modern world of musical composition, we are not in the same class as those mentioned above. But what about Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, or John Lennon, who write figuratively at times? We should consider them even if it is at a different level.
There are some great examples of figurative language used in music, so let’s see what we can find…
Top 10 Best Songs With Figurative Language
Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 1 & Pt. 2 by Pink Floyd
One of the masters today of using figurative language in their songs to make you think. In the case of Pink Floyd, they are not trying to hide the meaning – they want you to think about it and work it out.
They consider that by doing so, you will come to a deeper understanding. They used an interesting example in their work, The Wall.
At one time…
Walls were a very efficient military and social defense. But, since the invention of the airplane, they have lost that efficiency other than as a visual barrier. Some people seem to have a hard time understanding that.
Roger Waters uses the wall here as a mental barrier. Some commentators have written that the song is about stopping child abuse. But, they misunderstood the wider concept of the album.
Walls, in a figurative sense, are those things that alienate us and separate us from reality. The teachers weren’t the bricks. The teachers were just one of the bricks.
He uses the experiences of his childhood at a school in Cambridgeshire to point out the restrictions school and teachers place upon children. Part 2 of the song does mention the negative aspects of corporal punishment in school, but that is just a part of it.
“Hey! Teachers! Leave them, kids, alone! – All in all, it’s just another brick in the wall – All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.”
In other words…
How their actions can prevent the development of a child. “The Wall” is then a list of all the emotional barriers that were placed on him and others. And, collectively, it became a wall preventing development and reality.
A very insightful and creative piece of work from the masters of Progressive Rock. The single reached #1 in the UK, America, and other countries. The album reached #3 in the UK and #1 in America and nine other countries.
What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstong
We all know this song which uses figurative lyrics differently from The Wall. Here the song is asking you to imagine and picture things we are all familiar with. The song was written by Bob Thiele and George Weiss.
It takes us on a tour in our minds’ eyes about things that are beautiful in the world. It is asking us to consider them in a figurative sense rather than being able to see them.
Also, it uses images to convey feelings like this, “The colors of the rainbow – So pretty in the sky – Are also on the faces – Of people going by.”
Rainbows can’t be on people’s faces…
But, the beauty of the rainbow is used figuratively to describe the beauty of the smile between friends. The alliteration in the song is well-created, and the verses are completed by the chorus, “And I think to myself – What a wonderful world.”
It was used to great effect in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam.” The song is played as the background to some very unpleasant visuals.
American Pie by Don McLean
Now here is a song that is just what we are talking about. Packed with metaphors, allusions, referring to musicians without saying their names, and references to some other songs.
It is Don McLean’s greatest song. Additionally, it’s one of the most popular songs with figurative language.
It was released in 1971 and was taken from the album of the same name. The single reached #2 in the UK and #1 in America. As a result, it is one of the best songs with figurative language.
There has been so much conjecture about what it is all about…
“The Day The Music Died” is probably the death of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens in a plane crash. But there are some other very odd assumptions.
Some think that the “jester” was Bob Dylan. But that’s hardly plausible when he was writing songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”
We are more likely to get closer to the figurative speech he used by referring to lines that were eventually not included. McLean says it is about the loss of innocence in America in the 50s. And how it was clear the country was heading in the wrong direction.
So, what were those lyrics?
Perhaps the confirmation of that is that the original line was “Bye Bye Miss American apple pie,” but the apple was dropped. Americans do love their apple pie, and that could be seen as the loss of an identity they relate to.
McLean considers in the song that the 50s era was a “golden age” for America and that it is gone now. Perhaps the line “the day the music died” might refer figuratively to more than just a tragic plane crash. Maybe the plane crash is used figuratively as the crash of that golden era.
Whatever the real meaning, it was a great song that made a huge impact, and in many ways, still does.
Killing Me Softly With His Song by Roberta Flack
This is a song that just about everyone knows. Singer Lori Lieberman collaborated with Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel in writing this song.
It was composed after she had been to a Don McLean concert in 1971. It was taken from the 1973 album with the same title. Lieberman released it first, but it is the Roberta Flack version that most will be familiar with.
Rather what you might call an over-the-top description. It isn’t possible to kill someone with a song. She is making a metaphorical statement to describe how powerful the performance of McLean was. And how it affected her.
The sincerity of whatever song he was singing made it feel like he was singing at her. And, almost knew too much about her, as if he had read her letters and was reading them back to her. Clever use of a situation where someone can be portrayed as being so affected by a performance.
Ain’t No Sunshine by Bill Withers
Some songwriters take everyday events and then create impossible situations out of them to suit the situation. The sun is always going to be there, but in some situations, it can feel like it might not be.
The sun is a positive symbol. It gives us warmth and assists in what we grow. We could not survive without it. So, take it away, and we don’t survive. Is that the message he expounds here?
An Expression Of Loss
The title of the song is used to express his grief and sorrow when she isn’t around. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone – And this house just ain’t no home – Anytime she goes away.”
He is using two separate channels of thought. Firstly, her being away makes the house feel empty. Secondly, it doesn’t feel like home anymore without the warmth of her love which is a much stronger use of the expression.
The song was taken from his 1971 album, Just As I Am. It featured “Duck” Dunn on bass and Steven Stills on guitar. On its first release in 1971, it reached #3 on the American chart.
Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
It is about time we paid a visit to Mr. Dylan. Plenty of his compositions could be included among the greatest songs with figurative lyrics.
Furthermore, we could probably have written this article just using Dylan’s songs. But I had to choose one, and this is it. It was taken from his album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, released in 1963.
It is known as a protest song which I suppose it is. The lyrics are a series of rhetorical questions about us as humans, about war, freedom, and peace.
It has made an impact on society in so many ways…
In the film “No Direction Home” by Martin Scorsese, it is used as an anthem for Civil Rights. In that production, singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples makes a profound statement.
She says she “doesn’t know how a white man can encapsulate how black people felt in the words of a song.”
“Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head? – And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
But its figurative lyrics go even further…
He answers each of the questions he asks with an answer that is of itself deeply ambiguous. “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”
What does that mean? Does he mean that the answer is so obvious that it is right in your face as the wind is? Or does it mean it is intangible, just like the wind? You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. He leaves you to work it out.
Typical of Dylan, deep, dark, and excruciatingly critical with its honesty. He was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016.
Working Class Hero by John Lennon
This is an interesting song taken from the album, Plastic Ono Band, released at the end of 1970. His first album after The Beatles split.
Growing up, John was not poor. Indeed, he didn’t have the happiest family life with his mum and dad being away. But short of money, they weren’t. Perhaps I should qualify that, no more than any other “comfortable” family in post-war Liverpool.
Was He The Hero?
I don’t think he meant it to be a phrase to describe himself. Even though I think he may have wanted to be viewed as such. It is more a case of how higher classes view the working class, and how they control them.
When he sings, “A Working Class Hero is something to be,” it is more likely he is referring to the struggle to climb out of poverty. A struggle that is made almost impossible. And, of course, the perception of “working class” people.
He is burying his contempt for the system in a series of observations…
All of which are accurate. Dylan might have done a similar thing by asking questions, as we have seen in “Blowing In The Wind.” John does it by making statements that no matter what you do, you will always be wrong. “They hate you if you’re clever – And they despise a fool.”
John was fortunate that he was able to bypass that system. Maybe there is a little bit of guilt buried in the language he uses. He is still not one of them and never will be.
A great song and one in which Lennon, free of previous constraints, could turn all his anger on what he believed without being criticized. Interestingly, some radio stations in America banned it, and a case file was opened on John as a potential subversive. Don McLean was right.
Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
This song has also received its share of interpretations. On the face of it, it is about a young man guilty of murder who goes on the run. It has some great figurative lines, one of which is, “Caught in a landslide – No escape from reality.”
Ever felt trapped in your life with no way out? Is that what Freddie is saying there? He could have been singing about his future. Or, even that of Johnny Deacon, who was known to hate the spotlight but could do nothing to escape it.
One of their best-known tracks from the album, A Night At The Opera.
I Am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkel
Possibly the saddest of all the best songs with figurative language. Paul Simon wrote it about a man who is a recluse. A man who has withdrawn from society in a way so that he doesn’t have to feel pain and disappointment.
The figurative language Simon uses places the man as a rock or an island. Something that stands alone. It was included on the album, Sounds Of Silence.
The tragedy of the man’s life stalks nearly every line of the song, “I have no need of friendship – Friendship causes pain – It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.” Figurative and very, very powerful. Genius? I think so.
The Sounds of Silence by Simon And Garfunkel
This is more than a song with plenty of figurative language. Some call it a prophecy of the future. I don’t think, as some do, that there is a religious side to this.
He is just using vernacular that happens to form the story and the meaning. “And the people bowed and prayed – To the neon god they made.”
There is a parallel with an Old Testament text regarding the creation of a golden calf made to be worshiped. More likely, it is a reference to the scourges of modern society. The insatiable demands to make money and then make even more at others’ expense.
Today, of course…
That “neon god” could well be an adequate description in the practical world of smartphones and devices. Or, in a technical way, Facebook and similar software.
He goes on to say, “The words of The Prophets are written on the subway walls – And tenement halls.”
Again, no biblical meaning is meant at all, in my opinion…
The word “prophet” gets people all excited. You often find the real truth written on a subway wall or a tenement hall. Those people, unknown as they are, are modern prophets of our generation, and he is referring to them.
One of the great songs by one of the greatest songwriters of our generation.
Want to Discover More Songs with Deeper Meanings?
Well, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Songs About Witches & Wizards, the Top Songs About Brown Eyes, the Best Songs About Fire, the Top Songs About Snakes, and the Top Songs About Wolves for more incredible song selections.
Also, you need to listen to them. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Headphones Under $200, and the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones you can buy in 2023.
Best Songs With Figurative Language – Final Thoughts
In some ways, the figurative is better than the literal. It can be more powerful in the way it promotes thought rather than just accepting the words in their simple format.
Sometimes, a simple truth can be better described in figurative terms. Comparison and descriptive text can do that. Figurative lyrics add subtlety to the message before they reveal the truth. And the truth can be found in a variety of places, even on subway walls and in tenement halls.
Until next time, happy listening.