Engage Kids With Songs That Can Teach Them About Metaphors

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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. 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, New York City is the town since it is often called the Big Apple. The New York Public Library website notes that the metaphor, the "Big Apple," has had various other meanings throughout history. Throughout the 19th century, the term big apple meant something regarded as the most significant of its kind; as an object of desire and ambition. The website also noted the phrase 'to bet a big apple' meant someone was "absolutely confident" and stating something with " with supreme assurance."

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 first recorded by Big Mama Thornton in 1952, fully four years before Elvis recorded his version. Indeed, Elvis's music was greatly influenced by the blues sounds of great Black artists from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. 

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 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 to explore other songs, literary and historical works in search of metaphors and similes.

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"Perfect" by Ed Sheeran

The love song "Perfect" sung by Ed Sheeran uses an angel metaphor to describe a woman. 

According to Vocabulary.com  angel is a messenger of God, "characterized as having a human form with wings and a halo." Angels are noted for their goodness as well as comfort and aid to others. 

The song has also been recorded as a duet with Beyoncé, and as a symphony with Andre Bocelli. The song lyrics:

"Baby, I'm dancing in the dark, with you between my arms
Barefoot on the grass, listening to our favorite song
I have faith in what I see
Now I know I have met an angel in person
She looks perfect
Oh I don't deserve this
You look perfect tonight"

In teaching metaphors, there is another famous angel metaphor in Act Two of Romeo and Juliet when Romeo hears Juliet sigh and say "Ah, me." He responds:

"She speaks.
O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art
As glorious to this night, being o'er my head,
As is a wingèd messenger of heaven" (2.2.28-31).

Winged messengers from heaven? Whether the angel is Juliet or the woman in the song, an angel is "Perfect."

Songwriter(s): Ed Sheeran, Beyoncé, Andrea Bocelli 

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"Can't Stop the Feeling"-Justin Timberlake

The sunshine in the pocket in the song "Can't Stop the Feeling"- by Justin Timberlake is a metaphor used to describe 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 uses 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.”

Songwriters: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Johan Schuster

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"Rewrite the Stars" from "The Greatest Showman" Soundtrack

In Shakespeare's time, many people believed that fate was preordained, or "written in the stars." An example of this Elizabethan view of fate is Queen Elizabeth I's selection of the astrologist John Dee so that he could read the stars to pick her coronation day in 1588. 

That connection between the stars and fate is used as an extended metaphor in the musical The Greatest Showman. The song "Rewrite the Stars" is performed as an ariel ballet between two of the characters: Philip Carlyle (Zac Ephron), a wealth and socially-connected white man, and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a poor, African-American girl. The metaphor suggests that their love can lift them high enough to write a fate where they can be together. 

The lyrics from their duet:

"What if we rewrite the stars?
Say you were made to be mine
Nothing could keep us apart
You'd be the one I was meant to find
It's up to you, and it's up to me
No one can say what we get to be
So why don't we rewrite the stars?
Maybe the world could be ours

Songwriters: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

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"Stereo Hearts"- Maroon 5

The heart is often used in metaphors. Someone can have a "heart of gold" or "speak from the heart." The title of Maroon 5's song, "Stereo Hearts," is itself a metaphor, and the lyric containing this metaphor is repeated multiple times for emphasis:

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

The connection between sound and heartbeat infers intimacy.

But the sound of a heartbeat in literature can have another meaning. For example, 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.

Songwriters: Travie McCoy,  Adam Levine, Benjamin Levin, Sterling Fox, Ammar Malik, Dan Omelio

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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 class discussion point. 

Songwriting: Rami Yacoub, Carl Falk, Savan Kotecha

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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"

"Naturally" 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.

Songwriters: Antonina Armato, Tim James, Devrim Karaoglu

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"Natural" by Imagine Dragons

The refrain of the song "Natural" states that someone (You) needs a "beating" heart of stone in order to endure the suffering in the world. In order to survive the world's darkness, someone would need to be "cutthroat." The Gothic images in the official music video support the dark tones of the song.

The metaphor "a heart of stone" finds its origin as an idiom, as an expression that refers to a person who does not show sympathy for others. 

The metaphor is in the refrain: 

"A beating heart of stone
You gotta be so cold
To make it in this world
Yeah, you're a natural
Living your life cutthroat
You gotta be so cold
Yeah, you're a natural"

The song has served as a seasonal anthem for ESPN College Football broadcasts. 

Songwriters: Mattias Larsson, Dan Reynolds, Ben McKee, Justin Drew Tranter, Daniel Platzman, Wayne Sermon, Robin Fredriksson

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"In the Shallows" from "A Star is Born" Soundtrack

The latest remake of the film A Star is Born stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. One song the duet sings uses the depth of water as a metaphor to figuratively describe their relationship.

Water is a reoccurring symbol in literature, art, or mythology. According to Thomas Foster in his book, How to Read Literature Like Professor:

"Water has a distinctive role in literature. Sometimes it's just water, but when characters become submersed it can mean more than they are just getting wet (155).

Foster argues that writers employ lakes and water as a symbol of rebirth for the character, "if the character survives that is" (155).

That description linking water and survival is important since the metaphor in the song "In the Shallows" describes the ups and downs in their relationship. A refrain in the song is sung alternately by Cooper and Gaga:

"I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now"

Songwriters:  Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt

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

The image of lightning is 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.

Songwriters: Calvin Harris, Taylor Swift

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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.

Songwriters: Gary Baker, Frank J. Myers, Richie McDonald

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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"

Songwriter: Tony Arata

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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.

View Article Sources
  • Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.

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Kelly, Melissa. "Engage Kids With Songs That Can Teach Them About Metaphors." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/songs-with-metaphors-8075. Kelly, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Engage Kids With Songs That Can Teach Them About Metaphors. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/songs-with-metaphors-8075 Kelly, Melissa. "Engage Kids With Songs That Can Teach Them About Metaphors." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/songs-with-metaphors-8075 (accessed May 29, 2023).