One of the principle tools songwriters use to tell their stories and weave their magic is rhyme. Why is that and do you really have to? Beginner songwriters often do it badly while more experienced writers make it look effortless and feel so natural sometimes you don’t even notice their lyrics are packed with rhyme. What’s with that?
First off, even though we may spend hours, days or even years working on a rhyming scheme in our songs, lyrics are words to be heard. They are audio first and foremost. And the audio travels in linear real-time – it’s a delivery of a chronological narrative. Yes, of course, it’s wonderful pouring over beautifully designed gatefolds and inserts, but a song has to hit us in the ears before we feel it in our hearts and minds. Rhyming is a big part of that. It sets up expectations in the sounds of the words used and the patterns that they are placed. This helps our understanding of the lyric and seriously helps us to remember it. That’s a key objective of songwriters – memorability. A Reddit post from WoutervD explains this further.
"I think this has to do with your brain reacting positively to expectations becoming reality. In music, we tend to recognise patterns in the notes and this causes your brain to develop an expectation of what will be next. Check out this video to see how strongly (and how well) that works. I think rhyming might be the linguistic equivalent of this. Your brain hears a word and then another word matches the first. If you know this will happen (because you're listening to a song or poem) your brain considers it to be very gratifying."
Secondly, lyrics are words to be sung. Singers spend 90 – 99% of their airtime on vowels. If you can line up vowels of a similar nature, your mouth stays in the same shape and makes the song light years easier to sing. Rhyme improves singability. It’s not the only tool you can use to develop this but it’s a biggie. Rhyme is considered part of the melody of a poem.
"Melody refers to sound effects, such as rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance, with each producing a unique melodic effect. Rhyme is a type of melody, and rhymes can be perfect with identical vowel sounds (“guy” and “high”) or slant, when the sound of the final consonants is identical, but not the vowels (“shell” and “pill,” “cement” and “ant”). "
So yes, rhyming is a huge convention in contemporary songwriting. There are families of rhyme – the extent to which a rhyme is ‘perfect’ or near enough, and there are patterns of rhyming – the way the rhymes land within the song - to learn and try out. But there are also a few tricks to pop up your sleeve.
1. Don’t put a rhyme just for the sake of rhyming. It will feel forced. It’s more important to be authentic than chained to a rhyming scheme. Try writing out what you want to say as if you’re copying someone’s conversation, and then refashion it. You’re the boss.
2. Put ‘unexpected’ rhymes second in your rhyming scheme. Instead moon and June, drown us in a monsoon, or draw us in a cartoon. It will help your imagery too.
3. Rhyming dictionaries – all over the internet, as well as in print. Use them willy nilly. You’ll find prompts for words you won’t ever have considered, and that’s good! Here’s one to try.
4. You can use rhyme within the line, not just at the end – a favourite Paul Simon technique and he wasn’t called Rhymin’ Simon for nothing.
5. If you use one rhyme scheme in your verse, do a different one (or none) in the chorus. It improves your song’s contrast. If you’re using the same rhyming scheme all the time, stop!
The main thing is to understand why rhyme is used, and play with all the options at your disposal. More fun, better songs.
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PS We cover rhymes and their families and friends in our Songwriting Clinics.
Hi, I'm Charlotte Yates and I can help you get better at writing songs.