Writing Rhymes

Songs haven't always rhymed. Ancient Hebrew songwriters rhymed ideas instead of sounds — they stated an idea or concept and then restated it in different words. Even now a song occasionally hits the charts that doesn't rhyme. Billy Vera's “At This Moment” is a prime example. However, it's much, much easier to market a song that rhymes. What makes for a great rhyme? That depends on what year it is and what style you're writing. Listen to the radio and to your favorite CDs, and compare where the rhymes are and what kind of rhymes are used. You'll be amazed at all the options you find.

The Rhyme Scheme

“Rhyme scheme” is the term used to describe where rhymes are placed in the song. Within a given section (verse, chorus, or bridge) the rhymes are designated, in order of appearance, by letters of the alphabet. AA rhyme scheme has two lines that rhyme:

He reached into his pocket

And found a silver locket

An ABAB rhyme alternates the rhyming lines, as follows:

He reached in his pocket

And what should he find

But the fine silver locket

Of the girl on his mind

Inner Rhymes

Rhymes can work at the end of the lines as well inside them. Rhymes occurring inside a line are called, you guessed it, “inner rhymes.” These are one of a songwriter's secret weapons: Consciously or unconsciously, we expect to hear rhymes at the ends of lines. Inner rhymes come as a surprise to the ear. This helps keep a listener's attention. Where you choose to place inner rhymes can give different effects:

  • Back-to-back: “ I went downtown and watched the girls walk by.”

  • Very close together: “I went around the town, calling out your name.”

  • Further apart: “I went down to the bad side of town to see a girl I used to know.”

  • In two different lines: “ I get so down when I come home to visit/Is it this town or knowin' you're in it.”

  • You can also put more than one set or internal rhymes into a line or set of lines. The following couplet contains a complex set of inner rhymes:

    I'm in a U-haul packed wall to wall headin' back to TenneSEE Good-bye to the smog and the high stress job yeah what I NEED

    (From “Hometown Girl,” Copyright 2002, C.J. Watson, Kevin Ball; used by permission.)

    As you can see, the A and D rhymes are in italics, the B and E rhymes in bold, and the C rhymes in all caps. The rhyme scheme is ABABC/DEDEC. Play with different schemes; see what you can do with ABCABC or ABCA/DBCD. Make up your own patterns and see if you can write a set of lines that fit.

    An important trick many pros use is to make sure that the rhyme scheme in the verses is different from that of the chorus. This, along with melodic shifts and changes in the meter and dynamics, makes the chorus stand out and helps your song to keep a listener's attention.

    Imperfect Rhymes

    In the previous lines, you might notice that the words “U-Haul” and “wall” rhyme perfectly, which is to say that the final vowel and consonant sounds are the same. Likewise the words “goodbye” and “high” are nearly perfect rhymes because they end in the same vowel sound.

    But some rhymes are imperfect. “Packed” and “back” are pretty close; they both have a short “a” sound, like in the word “at,” followed by a “k” sound. However, “packed” has an additional “t” sound at the end, so this pair doesn't rhyme perfectly. “Tennessee” and “need” each have a hard “E” as the last vowel, but one ends in a consonant, “D,” while the other ends with the vowel. “Smog” and “job” end in different consonants, but have the same vowel sound.

    In the past, much importance had been placed on perfect rhyme. In some cases, it's still the way to go. For the more formal-sounding songs in the timeless pop style, perfect rhyme often works best. But in today's more conversational songs, an imperfect rhyme can be a fresh alternative. When people hear “heart” at the end of a line, they usually expect to hear “start” or “apart” for the rhyme. If you surprise them by using “car,” they might listen more closely to see what comes next.

    Don't Force It!

    Never accept an awkwardly phrased or stilted-sounding line just because it ends with a perfect rhyme. Forced rhymes sound amateurish and make a listener think about the rhyme instead of the story or the melody. If you don't find a perfect rhyme that floors you, look for an imperfect rhyme that does. If you can't find an imperfect rhyme, try a different word in the rhyme spot.

    Some songwriters use “made” rhymes that rely on regional or genre-specific diction styles. For example, John Fogerty's diction allows him to rhyme words like “door” and “slow” perfectly. With most singers, these two words would be a fairly weak rhyme. However, made rhymes may limit a song's marketability to a few artists.

    On rare occasions, a rhyme may be made by distorting a word in a previously unheard-of way. A classic example is Roger Miller's “Dang Me,” in which he rhymes “purple” with “maple surple” for humorous effect. This is extremely difficult to pull off and is almost exclusively used in novelty songs, but you may wish to try it anyway.

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