Common Problems With Rhyme

By John Braheny

A common failing among songwriters is to say what you want to say in the first two lines and, instead of finding an equally strong statement to finish the verse, settling for a weaker line for the sake of the rhyme. Sure, you save some work, but you've also effectively weakened your song. Better to have written several versions of the first two lines to come up with a root word that offered more rhyming possibilities. Don't reach for the easy rhyme if it dilutes your efforts. And beware of these possible rhyming pitfalls:


This involves reversing the natural, conversational order of words to achieve a rhyme. It almost always feels awkward and brings undue attention to the rhyme. Putting the object before the verb causes a momentary glitch for the listener in following the content as he reassembles the sentence. Here's an example:
I never knew how much I'd missed
Until your candy lips I kissed
In this situation, I'd go for "lips" as the end rhyme, even though it lacks the perfection of "missed/kissed." "Till I kissed your candy lips" just feels more natural.


These are not rhymes. Identities are: the same words, words with the same consonant preceding the same final sound (buy/goodbye), words that sound identical even though spelled differently (homonyms) like "bear" and "bare," "no" and "know." You won't get arrested for doing this. It's just lazy writing. Common exceptions include building of parallel constructions like, "Gonna talk about it/Gonna shout about it/Gonna sing about it/There's no doubt about it," which uses the "shout/doubt" rhyme before the last word, Also acceptable is the repetition of a variation of a line for emphasis: "Goin' downtown, goin' way downtown."


This is a great source of new rhymes and many hits are based on slang words and expressions. The only drawback is if you're trying to write a song people will record twenty years from now. By then, the slang we use today may sound really dumb. Would anybody record a song today with the '30s "the cat's meow" or "23 skidoo" in it? "Groovy" puts it squarely in the '60s.

Colloquial Pronunciation

This has a problem similar to slang. Here the drawback is not change in fashion, but the reduced ability of other artists to record the song. It's good to be able to tailor a song to a particular musical style, like country or R&B, and use the pronunciations common in that style (e.g., to rhyme thang (thing) with hang, or pain and again). But bear in mind, you're limiting the coverage of those songs to artists who are comfortable with those styles and pronunciations. Can you imagine Celine Dion rhyming hang/thang or Jay Z rhyming pain/again — pretty much have to be a Brit to do the latter.

Is rhyme necessary?

We hear more songs these days that don't rhyme. In most cases, they're from self-contained bands. They write their own material and aren't that interested in having other artists record the songs. Because they aren't exposed to the same industry scrutiny, they have a more wide-ranging creative palette from which to paint their songs. More power to them. If you can get your message across to your audience without the use of rhyme, there's no rule that says you have to use it. Be aware though, that laziness is not a good enough reason to ignore a powerful tool.

Even in pop music there are examples of songs that don't use rhyme. The standard "Moonlight in " is a good example; Lionel Richie's "Lady," a major hit for both him and Kenny Rogers in the '80s doesn't rhyme. So, why do they work? There are several possibilities:

They're both exceptional melodies.

One of rhyme's functions is to help us remember the lyric, and both of those lyrics, especially "Moonlight in Vermont," are simple enough to remember without it.

In the case of "Lady," the melody's construction is such that it doesn't, through rhythm and meter, set up a rhyme expectation, so we don't ever miss it.

The constant creative challenge is to find the best rhymes possible and still retain the flow of natural speech patterns, while at the same time not compromising content and mood. If you read the lines aloud they should feel as natural as conversation. In fact, keep in mind that a song is a conversation between writer (and artist) and the listener. Every line presents a new challenge and it may be that, after exploring the possibilities, you'll need to choose a less-than-perfect rhyme. It's more important that you opt for naturalness, mood, or clarity of content over convenience or cleverness for its own sake.

This excerpt from John Braheny's book, (The Craft and Business of Songwriting, 2nd Edition) has been edited for length. It's available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.


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