Explore Literary Devices in Popular Lyrics

Bring literary devices to life by listening to popular song clips and studying their lyrics.

By Stef Durr

Music notes

I listen to music every chance I get, and my love for this absence of silence began back in high school. Play off your pupils' love for music by bringing music into your classroom to develop their understanding of literary devices and the effect they have on the written word. Better yet, prepare this lesson for National Music Week, celebrated in 2013 from May 5-12.

Use Music to Teach Literary Devices

It was a rookie mistake; I planned a lesson in which student pairs had to match literary device terms and their definitions before matching an example of each literary device to the first created pair. Most of the groups were able to use deductive reasoning to accurately match the term and its definition, and they didn’t have too much trouble studying the examples and aligning them to the correct term and definition. But, when I read their next narrative assignments, I was disappointed to see that the literary devices didn’t translate into their written work. I realized that even though my class could define common terms (simile, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia, alliteration, personification, etc.), they couldn’t work them into their writing naturally.

Since the goal of the lesson was to develop both sensory and figurative language in their writing, Common Core Standard: W.8.3, it was time to reteach.

Introduce the Importance of Figurative Language

The second time around, I started by stressing the importance of having figurative language in one’s writing. Why do students need to know what personification looks like? The answer is simple: style. The figurative language used in a written piece develops the author’s style and engages the reader. While preference varies from person to person, most kids are likely to point out that a piece of writing with figurative language engages its reader far more than a piece without. To highlight this, I show my class two pieces of writing. Consider using the ones below or creating samples of your own.

  • Writing Sample One: The beach is my favorite place to go. I dip my toes into the cold water, and the seagulls chirp above. I eat my greasy French fries and stare out at the water. I could stare at the waves all day, and the noise clears my mind. As I walk through the sand, I sink slightly with each step. Ah, summer.
  • Writing Sample Two: Crash, crash, crash. The waves knock against the shoreline, foam creeping up the sand like a cat after its prey. As I dip my feet into the cold water, I hear squawking above. Chatty seagulls circle around me, eyeing my French fries. It’s as if a million birds are blocking the sunlight as they circle above. With the last bite of my French fries, the seagulls disappear like a magician’s card, fast. My feet, frantic for footing on the sand hills, sink with each step. Summer is freedom.

Ask These Questions 

  • Which passage is more interesting?
  • Which passage is easier to visualize?
  • Which phrases help you visualize the scene?
  • Where do you see sensory and figurative language? Identify specific examples.
  • Both of these passages are about the same thing; What makes one of them more interesting?

To really sell your class on spending the time to develop sensory and figurative language in their writing, they have to know its benefits. Namely that it’s more interesting and captivating for the audience. If you can highlight this idea, more kids will be interested in tying it into their writing. 

Collect Song Clips to Play for Your Class 

Now that your students know the benefit of including such language in their writing, start collecting songs. Use the Internet, your personal collection, or their current favorites to compile a group of songs that exhibit common devices such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, alliteration, or onomatopoeia. It’s easier than you think! I end up pulling the lyrics for specific stanzas, so my listeners don't get overwhelmed with the lyrics of the entire song. Here are some songs to consider using in your classroom:

Nickleback “Rockstar” (Definitely select a specific stanza and play just a clip of this song. In its entirety, this song is not appropriate for the classroom.)

  • Hyperbole
  • Allusion

Green Day “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” 

  • Repetition
  • Personification

Alicia Keys “Girl on Fire” 

  • Simile
  • Figurative language

Katy Perry’s “Firework” 

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Figurative language 

Taylor Swift “Love Story” 

  • Allusion
  • Metaphor

 The Red Hot Chili Peppers “Snow” 

  • Simile
  • Rhyme

 Coldplay “Paradise” 

  • Hyperbole
  • Figurative language

 Calvin Harris “Feel So Close” 

  • Figurative language
  • Metaphor
  • Idiom

 Nelly Furtado “I’m Like a Bird” 

  • Figurative language
  • Rhyme
  • Simile

 Pink “Just Give Me a Reason” 

  • Figurative language

Crank Up the Music

What will your class design look like? Whether they’re in pairs or working independently, this lesson relies on the teacher to play (and replay) song clips as the students search for literary devices in the stanzas before them. Remember, identifying the literary device is only part of the equation here; authors use figurative language and literary devices to deepen the meaning of their words. Study the effect that the songwriter’s words have on both the tone and the meaning.

Tying the Music Back to Writing

Now that your class better understands the value of sensory and figurative language in their writing, it’s time to practice implementing various devices. An easy first assignment would be to have them select one of their favorite places and explain it by writing to the senses. If you’re afraid too many kids will select the beach after listening to your example, consider tearing pages out of magazines to give each class member their own scene to describe.

Top off your literary device song unit by having class members search for examples in their own favorite songs. Create an assignment sheet that suits your classroom goals, or use the one provided here to give them some guidelines.

Other Lesson Planet Resources to Check Out

Writing Hyperbole

Focus on developing hyperboles with this worksheet. Ten items are listed and writers have to create their own hyperboles for each. Offer a bonus if they can create two different hyperboles for each item!


Hone in on personification. Learners use a worksheet to identify examples of the literary device and write their own sentences personifying the rain.

Identifying Figurative Language from Edgar Allan Poe

Identify types of figurative language in the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The two-page worksheet focuses on specific lines from his writing and requires readers to name the literary devices being used and explain their reasoning.