Showing and telling are two storytelling techniques used in songwriting very often. Showing is the act of showing the listener what is happening and using imagery. Telling is when you tell the listener what is happening or how you feel straight forward.
Showing is more common in songs than telling because it helps the listener understand the story. Imagery is how songwriters show the listener what is happening. For example, Ed Sheehan “A Team.”
“White lips, pale face
Breathing in snowflakes
Burnt lungs, sour taste
Light’s gone, day’s end”
Right in the beginning of this song he shows you what the person he’s talking about looks like, the time of year, what the person is doing and the time of day. He could say sickly girl, winter time, smoking and night, but to make it more interesting he finds a more complex way to get the message through by showing.
Telling isn’t any less interesting, but it isn’t used as often. Usually songwriters have a pattern of showing and telling by having three lines show and the last line tell. For example, Lori McKenna, Jeremy Spillman and Travis Meadows’ “Pontiac.”
“Pontiacs and daydreams, cigarettes and magazines, backseats full of memories, I can’t let go of“
One song that only tells is “Bubbly” by Colbie Caillat for example:
“I’ve been awake for a while now
You’ve got me feelin’ like a child now
‘Cause every time I see your bubbly face
I get the tingles in a silly place”
As you can see she tells you everything she wants you to know including how she feels and what is happening.
Ways to practice this is to practice free writing. Choose a topic and write a paragraph about it in as much showing detail as you can. You can use what you come up with in songs.
Check out songs on this website for more examples and reach out to Robert Braathe.