There are many tools a songwriter can use to write lyrics for a song. We can use metaphors, personification, rhymes, alliteration. One of the tools in the lyric writing toolbox is onomatopoeia. This is not a topic that many people are aware of, so I wanted to write an article about it in the blog. So let’s take a look at when and how we can use this technique in lyric writing, and how successful songwriters used it in their songs.
Onomatopoeia is when we use words that imitate the sound that the word itself describes. These sounds can be noises or animal sounds too. If we look at song lyrics to understand how they use these words, we can notice a few things. First of all, most of the time, they use words that imitate percussive sounds. This is not surprising, since we are talking about music. And secondly, most of the time, they use these words in the chorus and the title of the song. So let’s take a look at some examples of how songwriters use onomatopoeia in their song lyrics.
One of the most used onomatopoeic words in lyrics is “bang”. This word is supposed to imitate the sound of someone banging with their fists on something, but it’s also a subtle way of explaining doing sex, like in the case of “Bang Bang” by Jessie J.
“Bang bang into the room (I know ya want it)
Bang bang all over you (I’ll let ya have it)”
(Bang Bang – Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj)
On the other hand, there’s no sexual reference in the song “Bang!” by AJR. In this song, he tells the story of transferring from childhood to being an adult, which sometimes hit us so fast.
“So put your best face on, everybody
Pretend you know this song, everybody
Let’s go out with a bang (bang! bang! bang!)”
(Bang! – AJR)
Another frequently used onomatopoeic word is “boom”. This can imitate the sound of an explosion, but it can also refer to the sound of a bass drum. In the song “Boom Boom Pow” by The Black Eyed Peas, they simply refer to the sound of their beat.
“Boom, boom, boom, gotta get that
Boom, boom, boom, gotta get that”
(Boom Boom Pow – The Black Eyed Peas)
In the song “Boom Clap”, the songwriter used even two onomatopoeic words, not just one. In this instance, the words “boom” and “clap” sound like an imitation of a drumbeat. However, in the lyrics, she says “Boom clap, the sound of my heart”. While these sounds don’t resemble the sound of a heartbeat, the meaning of this may be that she is in love, which sometimes can feel unreal, so it feels like her heart beats like a musical drumbeat.
“Boom clap, the sound of my heart
The beat goes on and on and on and on and
Boom clap, you make me feel good
Come on to me, come on to me now”
(Boom Clap – Charli XCX)
Using animal sounds in song lyrics is probably not a good idea unless you write children’s songs. Just think about how ridiculous it would sound to use “moo”, “cuckoo”, or “baa” in a song. “Roar” is somewhat different because it refers to the sound of a predator like a lion and it can refer to how a person changed. In the case of Katy Perry’s song, the lyrics explain how she changed to be stronger than before.
“I got the eye of the tiger
Dancing through the fire
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar
Louder, louder than a lion
‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar“
(Roar – Katy Perry)
“Tick” or “Click”
Using the words “tick”, “tock”, or something similar, usually refers to the sound of a clock. In these cases, they always refer to time. In the song “Tick Tick Boom” by The Hives, they even use the word “boom”, which we have already talked about previously. Using those two onomatopoeic words together is a reference to a time bomb, which can be metaphoric, referring to an important event that will happen soon. In other songs, they use “click” which also refers to the clicking of a clock.
“It’s too late it’s too soon or is it tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, boom“
(Tick Tick Boom – The Hives)
“TiK ToK, on the clock
But the party don’t stop no”
(Tik Tok – Kesha)
“Click, click, boom
I’m coming down on the stereo“
(Click Click – Saliva)
The sound “clap” is referring to the sound of striking our palms together. I already mentioned “clap” in a previous example. In the song “Boom Clap”, they refer to a situation when the person is in love and her heart feels like playing music. Clapping can also mean happiness, this is what we see in the lyrics of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. But we also clap when we want to celebrate someone’s success, for example, after a successful speech, or when someone just reached something outstanding.
“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do”
(Happy – Pharrell Williams)
According to the Oxford Dictionary, “zing” can mean energy, enthusiasm, or liveliness. The meaning of the lyrics is very straightforward in the song “It’s Oh So Quiet” by Björk. The word “zing” represents very positive energy that we can feel when we fall in love. In the song, “Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart” the word also refers to the feeling of falling love which can happen really fast.
“You fall in love, zing boom
The sky up above, zing boom
Is caving in, wow bam!”
(It’s Oh So Quiet – Björk)
“Dear, when you smiled at me, I heard a melody
It haunted me from the start
Something inside of me started a symphony
Zing! went the strings of my heart”
(Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart – James F. Hanley)
Literally, the word “splash” refers to the sound of water. And in fact, in the song “Splash” by Gwen Stefani, the lyrics say exactly “Splash, I’m diving in”. But it can also be a figure of speech, referring to “diving” or jumping into something that is scary or new. For example, starting to meet new people after a breakup, or jumping into a new relationship, which can be scary.
“Splash, I’m diving in
Diving in, I’m diving in“
(Splash – Gwen Stefani)
The word “knock” is also a percussive sound, however, it usually refers to someone knocking on a door because he wants to go in. The meaning of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is very clear, I don’t think it needs explanation.
“Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door“
(Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door – Bob Dylan)
The word “ka-ching” imitates the sound of a cash register, and it’s always referring to making money. In the song “ka-ching” by Shania Twain, it might seem like she is saying positive things about money, but she is actually using irony, which becomes clear from other parts of the lyrics “We live in a greedy little world”.
Can you hear it ring? (Ka-ching!)
It makes you wanna sing (Ka-ching!)
It’s such a beautiful thing
Lots of diamond rings (Ka-ching!)
The happiness it brings (Ka-ching!)
You’ll live like a king
With lots of money and things“
(Ka-Ching – Shania Twain)
The meaning of the onomatopoeic word “ring” is very clear, it refers to the sound of the telephone. In the song “Ring, Ring” by ABBA, the person is in love and she is waiting for a call from that someone. Interestingly, 45 years later, Cardi B published a song with almost exactly the same meaning.
“Ring, ring, why don’t you give me a call?
Ring, ring, the happiest sound of them all“
(Ring, Ring – ABBA)
“You don’t hit my line no more, oh, oh
You don’t make it ring, ring, ring, ring“
(Ring – Cardi B)
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.