I got an email from someone who felt that I might be slighting the importance of serious rhyming in songwriting. I had suggested that when working up the raw material or first draft of a song, songwriters don’t need to focus on rhyming. If a rhyme happens to come along, hang on to it, but keep your focus on communicating emotion. The reason I wrote this is because I often see lyrics that have sacrificed meaning or depth for a rhyme. My reader suggested that I look into Stephen Sondheim’s philosophy of rhyming. I thought it might be a good idea to post a couple of thoughts here on why rhyming in today’s commercial song styles – Pop, Rock, SInger-Songwriter, Urban, and Country – is a little different from the theatrical musical style of Sondheim.
Use “Near Rhymes”
I began my career writing musicals so I’m a huge fan of Sondheim. But for contemporary popular songs, we take the emphasis off rhyming, leaning on “near rhymes” (or vowel rhymes) in a way that stage and cabaret songs would never do. In a near rhyme only the vowel sound is the same – find/time, away/save, see/meet. These are all near rhymes. The final consonant doesn’t matter.
These rhymes create a very conversational, natural style that sounds believable for Pop, Rock, and Country singers. The lyrics sound honest, natural, and authentic when they’re sung by a Kelly Clarkson, or Toby Keith. These singers MUST maintain credibility with their audience, as if the song is naturally pouring out of them in the moment. A clever rhyme that draws attention to itself, can remind listeners that this song was carefully crafted and isn’t an emotion that’s just occurring to the singer. Believability is busted. (The Rap/Hip Hop genre is a BIG exception to this. It’s ALL about unique rhymes that the singer just thought of!)
Use rhymes for emphasis
This doesn’t mean that popular songs don’t rhyme at all, they do. But rhyming is only emphasized when there’s a reason for it. For instance, the last two lines of the chorus will often have a strong rhyme that signals the end of a thought and makes the lines more memorable.
If you look at a contemporary Pop lyric, you’ll find rhymes throughout the song but these rhymes will tend to be very natural sounding near rhymes. You have a MUCH greater selection of rhyming words when you use near rhymes than you do using “perfect” rhymes that rhyme both the vowel and consonant sounds. (Late/mate, will/still, river/giver are perfect rhymes.) As you work on later drafts of your song, turning your raw material into a final lyric, look for near rhymes that occur naturally. Never twist the word order out of shape to accommodate a rhyme – it will sound false and artificial when sung. Try using more noticeable perfect rhymes at the ends of verse or chorus sections or when you want to emphasize a word or thought.
While powerful stage songs do sometimes land on today’s radio charts (“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls is an example), these are rare. The Disney animated films have many good examples of stage-style songs with perfect rhymes, especially in the wonderful patter songs. But you won’t hear this style on today’s radio.
Best advice for commercial song styles
- Aim to express emotions first, then use rhyming to support it.
- Never change the word order in a lyric line to accommodate a rhyme!
- Rhyming words are emphasized so make sure they’re important words you want to draw attention to.
Where to find near rhymes
You can find lists of near rhymes at www.B-rhymes.com and RhymeDesk.com. Just type in the word you want to rhyme. (On WikiRhymer scroll to the bottom of the results page for near rhymes. They’ll also give you “mosaic” rhymes – rhymes consisting of more than one word!)
Do It Now!
Keep your rhyming words fresh. Avoid familiar rhymes like “love” and “above” or “dreaming of.” Look up near rhymes for the word “love” on one of the rhyming websites I mentioned. You’ll find words like “up” “enough” and “blood.” Much more interesting than “above”! Just think what you could write with THESE rhymes!
by Robin Frederick
This post is based on my books Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. Each book includes over one hundred useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to write songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.