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What Is the Function of Personification in Songs?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

Personification is the name for a literary and poetic technique that assigns human characteristics to animals, concepts, and inanimate objects. The role of personification in songs is similar to its role in poetry and literature. It is a device that makes the unknown knowable by describing it in human terms. It is sometimes used for dramatic effect or to create a beautiful image. Other times, it provides a commentary on some aspect of human nature.

Personification, also called anthropomorphism, is an ancient literary technique that may have its roots in animism, a common spiritual belief among many primitive cultures. Animism is the belief that animals and inanimate objects contain spirits, with will and intelligence comparable to that of humans. Ancient storytellers such as Aesop and Homer assigned human characteristics to animals and natural forces such as the wind. This became a popular literary device in the centuries that followed. In modern times, poets and writers still employ this technique, including the use of personification in songs.

Many believe the song "There She Goes" personifies heroin.
Many believe the song "There She Goes" personifies heroin.

A common practice in art and literature is to give the concept of death human characteristics. This includes the American folk song “Oh Death,” an early example of personification in songs. The narrator of the song asks Death to spare him; in another verse, Death itself talks about how it often hears similar appeals. “Oh Death” is a traditional song dating to at least the 1920s, its author unknown. The use of personification is a way to assign human motives and sympathies to a concept that is essentially unknowable.

Personification refers to giving human traits to things like animals.
Personification refers to giving human traits to things like animals.

Personification in songs can also be a way to express a complex concept or emotion. In his song “Hungry Heart,” Bruce Springsteen is really talking about unfulfilled desire, something all people have experienced at one time or another. He borrows the concept of the “hungry heart” from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to symbolize this desire. In another classic rock song, former Beatle George Harrison discusses the sadness of observing a changing world. Transferring this emotion to his instrument, he called the song “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Sometimes personification in songs has no purpose other than to create a beautiful or poetic image. In the Jimi Hendrix song “The Wind Cries Mary,” the wind is given a voice and a faulty memory. Hendrix was expert at creating nonsensical but memorable images and phrases in his lyrics. Some songs do not give up their secrets easily; the pop song “There She Goes” has long been believed to personify heroin, with lines like “there she goes again/pulsing through my veins.” The song’s authors dispute this interpretation, but offer no suggestions as to who or what the song’s title may actually be describing.

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Discussion Comments


What about a lyrics such as "the heart flew away." In a way, it is personification, in another way it is not because people don't fly. But hearts don't fly either. So is it a metaphor then?

I think that the function of personification in songs is to help words come alive. Every time we read or hear lyrics like these, an image conjures up in our head. It's difficult to relay feelings through basic words and in songs, there isn't a lot of room for words. So things have to be expressed as effectively as possible in a short and sweet way. So this is where personification and metaphors come in.


@ddljohn-- I think so because horror can't "look."

I heard a hip hop song the other day called "I Used to Love Her." My friend told me hat the "her" in the song is actually hip hop. So the lyricist was talking about the music genre as though it's a girl.

There are many examples of personification in song lyrics, it's impossible to list them all here. The cool part about personification in songs is that usually, it doesn't occur to us right away. Sometimes it's like a hidden meaning that one has to think about. For example, in the "There She Goes" song that the article also discussed, it's difficult to infer what is being talked about. It could be talking about drugs, but it could also be talking about love. I think that personification makes lyrics more interesting.


In Michael Jackson's famous Thriller song, there is a line that says "you start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes." Is this personification?

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    • Many believe the song "There She Goes" personifies heroin.
      By: Richard Villalon
      Many believe the song "There She Goes" personifies heroin.
    • Personification refers to giving human traits to things like animals.
      By: kinakoshiba
      Personification refers to giving human traits to things like animals.