Word Painting in Rock Music: 10 Examples

Word painting is a type of literary device used in poetry and occasionally in music. In word painting, the words themselves become the object or action being described.

Defining Word Painting

What is word painting? Word painting is a figure of speech in which the poet uses words to create a vivid picture or physical sensation. This technique is often used in music, particularly in songs written in the folk tradition.

The term “word painting” comes from the Greek word πίναξ (pīnax), which means “painting.” In English, the term was first used in the early 17th century by George Puttenham in his book The Arte of English Poesie. Puttenham used word painting to describe how poets use words to create visual images:

“For byPainting, or describing any thing so lively in all herfeaturès,or parts, as no one can be deceived; but must needs have a very lifelike knowledge of that thing described.”

Since then, the term has been used to describe various figures of speech, including simile, metaphor, and onomatopoeia.

The Beatles – “She Loves You”

“She Loves You” is a song written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and recorded by English rock group the Beatles for their 1963 album With the Beatles. The song was also released as a single, With the Beatles’ fourth, in Britain on 23 August 1963 and topped the New Musical Express and Melody Maker charts. In September 1963, it was issued in the United States as Capitol Records’ second single under the artist credit “Swan Silvertones”. Musically, “She Loves You” is rooted in rock and roll but employs word painting to musically convey its theme of love and relationships.

Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”

There are few songs in the history of rock music that are as iconic as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The song is a perfect example of word painting, a literary device in which the words of a song are used to create a vivid image or impression in the listener’s mind.

In the opening verse of “Stairway to Heaven,” Robert Plant uses word painting to describe the feeling of yearning for something that seems just out of reach: “There’s a lady who’s sure/ All that glitters is gold/ And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” The image of somebody reaching for something that is just beyond their grasp is perfectly conveyed in Plant’s lyrics.

Later in the song, word painting is used again to great effect in the lines “And as we wind on down the road/ Our shadows taller than our soul.” This time, the words are used to create a sense of foreboding and unease, evoking the feeling of being followed by something dark and ominous.

The final verse of “Stairway to Heaven” culminates in one of the most famous examples of word painting in rock music, with Plant singing about “a bustle in your hedgerow/ That sends fairies to the sun.” The use of fairy imagery here adds an otherworldly quality to the song, emphasizing the sense that what happens after death is ultimately beyond our understanding.

Word painting is just one of many literary devices employed by Led Zeppelin in “Stairway to Heaven,” but it is undoubtedly one of the most important and effective. The song would not be nearly as powerful without it.

Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”

In rock music, word painting is the depiction of lyrical themes through the use of musical similes and metaphors. It’s a technique that can be found in songs across the genre, from early pioneers like Elvis Presley to modern classics by the likes of Green Day.

One of the most famous examples of word painting can be found in Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”, which uses the metaphor of a wall to represent the barriers that exist between people. The chorus features the line “we don’t need no education”, which is repeated over a simple three-chord progression. This progression represents the monotony and repetitiveness of life, while the lyrics themselves paint a picture of children being forced into conformity.

Other examples of word painting in rock music include:

-The Beatles – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
-Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”
-Led Zeppelin – “Stairway to Heaven”
-The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations”
– Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
– Pink Floyd – “Money”
– Oasis – “ Wonderwall”
– David Bowie – “Life on Mars?”
– Muse – “Uprising”

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Nirvana was one of the most influential bands of the 1990s, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was its breakout hit. The song is an anthem for disaffected youth, and the title is a play on words that captures the teenage experience.

The phrase “smells like teen spirit” is a reference to deodorant, specifically the brand name Teen Spirit. This is a product that was marketed to teenage girls in the 1990s, and it’s likely that Nirvana was targeting this demographic with its music.

The title also contains a double meaning, as “teen spirit” can refer to the rebelliousness and angst that are often associated with adolescence. This interpretation is supported by the lyrics of the song, which talk about teenage rebellion and conformity.

Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” word painting examples:

1. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous” – The word “lights” could represent the dangers of the outside world, or it could be a metaphor for knowledge and understanding. By turning off the lights, teenagers can avoid these dangers or bury their heads in ignorance.

2. “Here we are now, entertain us” – The word “entertain” has multiple meanings, but in this context it could be interpreted as a plea for attention or validation. This line speaks to the feelings of loneliness and isolation that many teenagers experience.

3. “I feel stupid and contagious” – The word “stupid” is often used as a put-down by teenagers, but in this context it could also be interpreted as a self-deprecating statement about feeling lost and alone. The word “contagious” could be interpreted as a reference to peer pressure or conformity.

4. “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” – This line uses word painting to create a vivid image of teenage sexuality. The words “mulatto” and “albino” are references to race, which could be interpreted as a commentary on interracial relationships or fetishization. The word “mosquito” is a phallic symbol, while “libido” refers to sexual desire.

Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Queen’s operatic classic is a masterclass in word painting, using musical elements to bring the lyrics to life. From the staccato opening chords signifying chaos, to the lush strings and choir representing heaven, every element of the song reflects the lyrics. The result is a track that is as epic and dramatic as the story it tells.

David Bowie – “Space Oddity”

Space Oddity is a song written and recorded by English singer-songwriter David Bowie. It was first released as a single on 11 July 1969 and was later included on his second studio album, David Bowie. The song became one of Bowie’s most popular singles, and was released in various countries around the world. The song is about an astronaut, Major Tom, who is launched into space but loses communication with Ground Control.

The Who – “Won’t Get Fooled Again”

“The seditious words of young men are the seeds of revolution.” These lyrics, spoken by The Who frontman Roger Daltrey, couldn’t be more true in light of the band’s turbulent career. As one of the most influential rock bands of all time, The Who have always been unafraid to speak their minds and address social issues through their music.

One of their most iconic tracks, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, is a perfect example of word painting in rock music. Penned by Pete Townshend, the song is a cynical commentary on the political landscape of Britain in the early 1970s. The lyrics are full of vivid images and metaphors that paint a picture of a country on the brink of revolution.

As the song builds to its climactic finale, Daltrey screams the famous line “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss!”. This powerful image sums up The Who’s feelings of frustration and betrayal towards the government at that time. By using word painting, they were able to create a song that perfectly captured the zeitgeist of an entire generation.

The Rolling Stones – “Paint It, Black”

The 1966 song “Paint It, Black” by The Rolling Stones is an example of word painting in rock music. The lyrics describe the narrator’s despair and Depression, using black as a symbol of death and emptiness. The music itself is dark and foreboding, with a minor key melody and lyrics that gradually become more desperate as the song progresses. The word “black” is repeated over and over again in the chorus, further emphasizing the theme of darkness and despair.

AC/DC – “Highway to Hell”

AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is a classic example of word painting in rock music. The song is all about the dangers of living life on the fast lane, and the lyrics reflect this theme perfectly. The opening line, “Living easy, living free,” paints a picture of a carefree lifestyle, while the next line, “Highway to hell,” instantly changes the mood to one of danger and excitement. Other examples of word painting in the song include the lines “I’m on the highway to hell,” which conjures up images of a long and arduous journey, and “The engine’s humming, and I’m ready to fly,” which makes us feel the sense of freedom and power that comes with being on the open road. Whether you’re a fan of AC/DC or not, there’s no denying that “Highway to Hell” is a masterful example of word painting in rock music.

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