Engage Kids With Songs That Can Teach Them About Metaphors

Use Lyrics to Teach This Figure of Speech

Elvis
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

A metaphor is a figure of speech defined by Literary.net as:

"Metaphor is a figure of speech which makes an implicit, implied or hidden comparison between two things that are unrelated but share some common characteristics."

For example, "He is such a pig," is a metaphor that you might hear about someone who overeats. A similar figure of speech is a simile. However, the difference between the two is that similes use words such as "like" and "as." "She eats like a bird" is an example of a simile.

Take a look at the lyrics from Michael Jackson's song, "Human Nature," which includes the following line:

"If this town is just an apple
Then let me take a bite"

In these lyrics, the town Jackson refers to is New York City, which is metaphorically referred to as the Big Apple. Indeed, the New York Public Library notes that the metaphor, the "Big Apple," had various other meanings throughout history: "Throughout the 19th century, the term meant 'something regarded as the most significant of its kind; an object of desire and ambition'," the library notes on its website, "to 'bet a big apple' was 'to state with supreme assurance; to be absolutely confident of'.

Another example is Elvis Presley's (1956) song, "Hound Dog," which includes the following lyrics:

"You ain't nothin but a hound dog
Cryin all the time"

Here there is the unflattering comparison to a former lover as a hound dog! After sharing that comparison, a study of the lyrics could be turned a lesson on cultural history and influences. The song was actually first recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952, fully four years before Elvis recorded his own version. Indeed, Elvis's music was greatly influenced by the blues sounds of great black artists from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Indeed, Elvis would often visit Beale Street in the African-American section of his hometown of Memphis to watch black musicians perform.

A final example, the title of the song,"Your Love is a Song," by Switchfoot is, itself, a metaphor, but there are also other examples of this figure of speech in the lyrics:

"Ooh, your love is a symphony
All around me, running through me
Ooh, your love is a melody
Underneath me, running to me"

This comparison of love to music is chronicled throughout history, as poets and bards have often compared love to various forms of music or beautiful objects. A possible lesson would be to ask students to research instances of this kind of metaphor in songs and poems. For example, Scotland's most famous poet, Robert Burns, compared his love to both a rose and a song in the 18th Century:

"O my Luve's like a red, red rose, 
That's newly sprung in June: 
O my Luve's like the melodie, 
That's sweetly play'd in tune."

Metaphors and the other literary device of comparison, the simile, are very common in everyday speech, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and music. Music is a great way to teach students about both metaphors and similes. The following list features songs with metaphors that can help you create a lesson on the topic. Use these examples as a starting point. Then, ask students explore other songs, literary and historical works in search of metaphors and similes.

01
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"Can't Stop the Feeling"-Justin Timberlake

Topping the contemporary pop music charts is this song "Can't Stop the Feeling"- by Justin Timberlake The sunshine in the pocket is an implied reference to the happiness felt when the singer sees his lover dance. There is also the play on words with "soul" referencing a kind of dance music and its homonym "sole" for the bottom of a foot:

"I got that sunshine in my pocket
Got that good soul in my feet"

The sun as a metaphor is also seen in the following literary works:

  • Plato's Republic uses the sun as a metaphor for the source of "illumination";
  • Shakespeare uses the sun  in Henry IV to serve as a metaphor for the monarchy:
    • "Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
      Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
      To smother up his beauty from the world..."
  • The poet E.E.Cummings use the sun to describe his feelings of love in the quote, “Yours is the light by which my spirit's born: - you are my sun, my moon, and all my stars.” 
     
02
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"One Thing" - One Direction

In the song, "One Thing," by One Direction, the lyrics include the following lines:

"Shot me out of the sky
You're my kryptonite
You keep making me weak
Yeah, frozen and can't breathe"

With the image of Superman so entrenched in the modern culture, dating back to the 1930s comic books through many popular TV shows and films, this metaphor might be quite relevant to students. Kryptonite is a metaphor for a person's weak point -- her Achilles' heel -- an idea that could serve as a great class discussion point. 

03
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"My Heart's a Stereo" - Maroon 5

The title of Maroon 5's song, "My Heart's a Stereo," is a metaphor, and this lyric is repeated multiple times for emphasis:

"My heart's a stereo
It beats for you so listen close"

The image of the beating heart is infused in literature. Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," describes experiences of a man -- a murderer -- driven crazy, and into the arms of the police, by the increasingly loud thumping of his beating heart. "It grew louder -- louder -- louder! And still, the men (the police who were visiting his home) chatted pleasantly and smiled. Was it possible they heard not?" In the end, the protagonist could not ignore the beating of his heart -- and it led him to prison.

04
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"Naturally" - Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez' song, "Naturally" includes the following lyrics:

"You are the thunder and I am the lightning
And I love the way you
Know who you are and to me it's exciting
When you know it's meant to be"

This may be a pop song, but it harkens back to ancient Norse mythology, where the name of its main god, Thor, literally means "thunder." And, according to the website Norse Mythology for Smart People, Thor's main weapon was his hammer, or in the Old Norse language, "mjöllnir," which translates as "lightning." The metaphor presents a pretty intense image for what, at first glance, seems like a light pop song.

05
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"This is What You Came For"-Rihanna; lyrics by Calvin Harris

The image of lightning is also seen in "This is What You Came For" (lyrics by Calvin Harris). Here, the woman is described as having power because of the references to the implied ability she has to strike with the force of lightning...and get everyone's attention as well:

 "Baby, this is what you came for
Lightning strikes every time she moves
And everybody's watching her"

Lightning is a symbol of power, as also seen in Emma Lazarus's poem "The New Colossus" which begins:

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles."

The reference to the imprisoned lightning in the flame of the Statue of Liberty implies her power as an ally to those who come to the shores of America.

06
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"Sit Still-Look Pretty"-Daya

When Daya sings about not being a "puppet" in "Sit Still-Look Pretty", she is suggesting she does not want someone to control her or "pull her strings."

The other metaphor is her implicit comparison to herself as a "queen" who does not want to be ruled by a "king." In these lyrics:

"I know the other girlies wanna wear expensive things
Like diamond rings
But I don't wanna be the puppet that you're playing on a string
This queen don't need a king"

The use of puppets as a metaphor is also commonly used in political science or civics classes. A puppet government is defined as:

"a government which is endowed with the outward symbols of authority but in which direction and control are exercised by another power"

This meaning of "puppet"  is similar to the meaning of the lyrics of this song.

07
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"H.O.L.Y." -Florida Georgia Line

The use of religious imagery in  "H.O.L.Y." -Florida Georgia Line does not make it a religious song. Instead, the lyrics express a belief in a lover implying the belief is comparable to religion.

"You're an angel, tell me you're never leaving
'Cause you're the first thing I know I can believe in"

and

"You made the brightest days from the darkest nights
You're the river bank where I was baptized
Cleanse all the demons
That were killing my freedom"

In many literary texts, babies and young people are ‘angelic’ by virtue of not having been in the world for very long. In Milton's Paradise Lost, however, it the brilliant Angel of Light, Lucifer, who challenges God, and falls to become the Prince of Darkness, Satan

08
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"Adventure of a Lifetime" -Coldplay

Coldplay's "Adventure of a Lifetime" uses both the metaphor and hyperbole in the lyrics: 

"Turn your magic on, to me she'd say
Everything you want's a dream away
Under this pressure, under this weight
We are diamonds"

Here, the comparison to extraordinary pressure this love relationship is under is compared to the natural creation of diamonds. The recipe on LiveScience for creating diamonds is

  1. Bury carbon dioxide 100 miles into Earth.
  2. Heat to about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Squeeze under pressure of 725,000 pounds per square inch.
  4. Quickly rush towards Earth’s surface to cool.

The pressure will produce a valuable diamond; Coldplay suggests the same for this relationship.

09
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"I'm Already There" - Lonestar

In the song, "I'm Already There," by Lonestar, a father sings the following line about his children:

"I'm the sunshine in your hair
I'm the shadow on the ground
I'm the whisper in the wind
I'm your imaginary friend"

These lines could lead to innumerable discussions of the relationship between parents and their children currently and throughout history. Students could write a short essay or poem about their parents, using at least two or three metaphors to describe their relationship with their folks.

10
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"I am a Rock" - Simon & Garfunkel

In Simon and Garfunkel's song, "I am a Rock," the duo sings the following lines:

"Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island."

The song's metaphor could serve as a lesson in endurance. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, a famous folk-rock duo, were once one of the most popular artists of the 1960s, serving as countercultural icons. They broke up and reunited over the years, but their songs are still an enduring part of the culture -- and these two performers are still around, too.

11
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"The Dance" - Garth Brooks

The entire song by Garth Brooks called "The Dance" is a metaphor. In this song, "The Dance" is life in general and Brooks is singing about the fact that when people leave or die it might be painful but if pain were to be avoided then we would miss "The Dance." Brooks makes this point quite eloquently in the second stanza of the song:

"And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd have had to miss the dance"

12
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"Heart of Gold" - Neil Young

Neil Young's song, "Heart of Gold," is about a man searching for true love. It includes the lines:

"I've been a miner
For a heart of gold."

This metaphor could serve as a great jumping-off point for a compare-and-contrast lesson. Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad's novel, "Heart of Darkness," features a title that is the opposite of Young's metaphor. Instead of a person looking for a love with a heart of gold, Conrad's protagonist, Marlow, sails up the Congo River into the Congo Free State to find an ivory trader, Kurz, whose heart has turned dark. That novel has spawned many adaptations, including the movie, "​Apocolypse Now."

13
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"One" - U2

In U2's song, "One," the band sings about love and forgiveness. It includes the following lines:

"Love is a temple
Love a higher law"

There's an interesting history in the notion of comparing love to the law. According to "Metaphor Networks: The Comparative Evolution of Figurative Language," the term "love" was considered equal to the term "law" during the Middle Ages. Love was also a metaphor for debt and even economics. Geoffrey Chaucer, who is considered to be the father of English literature, even wrote: "Love is an economic exchange," meaning, "I'm putting more into this (economic exchange) than you," according to the "Metaphor Networks." That should certainly serve as an interesting starting point for a classroom discussion.