Primary English | Creative Writing: Figurative Language in Songs

Don't forget the lyrics...

Beauty and the Beast: The most recent Disney classic making its move from cartoon to live action remake. And what an apt movie to muse about learning from the world we live in, considering how much Belle adores reading and finding out more about different lands! If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t worry, there won’t be any spoilers in this post because I am going to focus on how the lyrics in songs can bring to the fore a greater awareness of the use of figurative language and how being able to access that can make learning English fun and done anytime, anywhere.

Figurative language is used in typical ways by writers to convey meaning in a simple yet sophisticated manner. What is figurative language? Figurative language are words or phrases which are different from the literal meaning of the words. For example, “no point crying over spilled milk” does not really refer to a person who is crying because he has spilled some milk! It actually means not useful feeling sorry about something that has already happened.

Figurative Language in Songs

Including figurative language in your writing would not only show mastery in the use of the language, but also make your compositions stand out because they have become more textually interesting and complex in their expression. Some examples of figurative language are the use of idioms (like the one above), metaphors and similes. There are a whole host of them, which your children would probably be exposed to as they progress on in school but for now, we will simply focus on metaphors and similes.

Let’s have a listen to the song first, shall we? Headphones on, let’s go!

Wasn’t that beautiful? Now I’m sure you would have caught some of the more signature lines like “tale as old as time” as you listened to the song. This is an example of a simile and similes show comparison between two very different things that share similar traits. Here, it  draws our attention because it does not simply say “it is a very old story” but adds imagery and draws on our understanding of how time has existed always, like this tale. Isn’t that poetic?

Similes can take the structure of “ as X as Y...”. You might have also caught the line: “as sure as the sun will rise” to express how something will certainly happen. Again, using such a literary device would add life to your writing because instead of just saying “X will definitely happen”, the reader is clued in to the universal understanding that the sun rises everyday without fail. With such a simile, that sentiment is put across in a masterful manner, making compositions an even more pleasant read when such expressions are used appropriately.

Suggested Activity: Spot the Similes in Songs

(that’s right, I just gave you an alliteration which is when a string of words in a phrase begin with the same letter)

In encouraging your children to learn what figurative language is and how to use them in their writing, you can pore over song lyrics (and of course listen to your favourite songs along the way) and play “Spot the Similes”. You can try it with this song: “Somewhere over the Rainbow”. In this song, we learn about a young girl’s longing to be part of a world where she can pursue her dreams. But hidden in this gem of a song is also a simile. Can you find it?

Answer: It is the phrase “troubles melt like lemon drops”, where the writer alludes to how one’s troubles will disappear as quickly and easily as the candy. Other than “as X as Y” or “ Y”, where intended character or item takes on properties of the object referenced.

Metaphors are similar to similes but omit the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’ in their construction and often make a link between a person and an object, that would be impossible literally. Check out how Mulan sings it in this song:

Did you manage to catch it? Yes, it was the part of the song where she says “they want a docile lamb”. Now if it was in the context of dinner, perhaps this metaphor wouldn’t work because people do and can quite literally eat lamb. BUT this was in the context of Mulan reflecting on her identity as a daughter who wants to fight in place of her father. So it wouldn’t make sense for her to literally be a lamb. Hence, it is a clear use of a metaphor to convey the idea of her family wanting her to be the typical girl of her time - one who would not disagree with her parents wishes, much less fight in a war.

Suggested Activity: Make your own Mismatched Metaphors

It gets really funny when wrong metaphors are used in the wrong context. So why not try making mismatched metaphors with your children as you look at the songs? After all, learning happens even when wrong answers are made, what more if these errors are intentional! Get going in giggles (alliteration again!) as you and your children come up with different metaphors that might not match the context or draw out the correct characteristics required by the storyline.

So instead of saying:

They want a docile lamb.

You and your children might come up with something ridiculous like:

They want a yummy clam.

After your laughter, you can discuss why this is funny in this context. You can ask questions on what clams are like, what characteristics they embody and whether they help convey the idea that Mulan’s parents want somebody obedient and domesticated for a daughter instead of someone who would go to battle.

To help your children remember what they have learnt, encourage them to use these newly learnt similes and metaphors in their writing. After all, practice makes permanent. But don’t worry if their writings are not peppered with the use of figurative language. As you can tell from the songs, they appear at appropriate times and are used only when the situation suits it. To have too many of them would be almost like have a meal that is overly salty (there’s an analogy there for you). So go easy on them, use them sparingly to spice up their writing (aha! A metaphor!) and before you know it, using figurative language in their writing will be as easy as 1, 2, 3 (a simile right here).

About the author: Karina is a stay-at-home-mum to her two babies, with a keen interest in the stuff of languages, ignited no less by her studies as a linguistics major in university and her prior experience teaching at the secondary level.