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Almost all pop songs rhyme. In fact, we songwriters currently dominate the rhyme space that poets abandoned last century for freer and more fertile linguistic pastures.
“We live in a rhyme-drenched era… as all those songs stuck in our heads confirm,” wrote literary critic David Caplan.
Bob Dylan’s famously gifted facility with rhyme (in part) won him the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet many a stumped songwriter has at times felt throttled by rhyme’s all-powerful constraints. Here are three creative ways to release that choke and find your flow again.
1. Change Schemes
Rhymes in lyrics come in patterns called rhyme schemes. Lines whose end words rhyme with each other are given a letter: the first is A, the second is B, and so on. If the line doesn’t rhyme, it’s given an X. Here are four boilerplate templates:
- AABB (couplets)
- ABAB (alternate rhyme)
- AAAA (monorhyme)
- ABBA (envelope)
But don’t overlook the relative freedom of XAXA, AXXA, or AAXA schemes, either!
It’s well worth it to take an extra couple of minutes and notate your own rhyme schemes. Chances are you will have defaults, just like go-to chord changes, key signatures, and guitar licks. So deliberately pick an alternate rhyme scheme to shake things up. If you always write four-line schemes, try six lines to stimulate inspiration. If you’re always writing in evens, go odd, like Joni Mitchell’s AAAX scheme in “Both Sides Now.”
Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way.
Rhyme doesn’t always have to stop us in our tracks at every line’s end. You can rhyme internally in the middle of a line, or extend a line and unbalance the rhyme to keep listeners on their toes. Adele did it in “Hello.”
Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart
But it don’t matter; it clearly doesn’t tear you apart anymore.
2. Choose Real Over Perfect
Use the full spectrum of rhymes available to you. Where musical theatre’s lyrics are as much part of the plot as the script, contemporary song classics often favor authenticity and conversational realism over so-called “perfect” rhyme. That doesn’t mean we never strive to rhyme perfectly, but instead that our rhyming words are bent and shaped a bit for purpose.
The rhyme spectrum includes:
- perfect — same vowel/consonant ending (e.g., “fat” and “cat”)
- family — vowels or consonants come from families of plosives, fricatives, and nasals (e.g., “white” and “ride”)
- additive/subtractive — the same vowel, plus or minus a consonant (e.g., “way” and “paid”)
- assonance — the same vowel with whatever consonant (e.g., “blow” and “throat”)
- consonance — different vowels, but the same consonant (e.g., “hand” and “end”)
With all these types of rhymes at your fingertips, rhyming can then become subtle, flexible, less “hit you over the head with it,” so you can more easily stay on message but also snap listeners to attention when you need to make a point. Here’s how the Chainsmokers did it in “Closer.”
So baby pull me closer in the backseat of your Rover
That I know you can’t afford
Bite that tattoo on your shoulder
Pull the sheets right off the corner
Of the mattress that you stole
From your roommate back in Boulder
We ain’t ever getting older
3. Submit to Sonics
Don’t worry about how the rhyme looks on paper. If it sounds good, use it. Play with words out loud and keep track of rhyme pairs or phrases you like in a journal or on your phone. Then you have a great resource immediately at hand that sounds good unto itself, and you can throw it into the mix and work it backwards to turn it into a lyric.
Oscar Hammerstein II did that with his line:
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.
The rhyme itself existed long before “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” did.
And when Kurt Cobain replaced this line:
A deposit / for a bottle / stuck inside it / no role model
…with an eclectic word bundle from his journals:
A mulatto / an albino / a mosquito / my libido
…in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it sounded better, and helped make the song totally iconic.
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