Rhyme - The Memory Trigger

By John Braheny

I'd guess more than 99% of all commercially successful songs use rhyme. Why is it so important? What is it that makes rhymes work?

There's a reason why people still remember the nursery rhymes of childhood. The rhymes are strong and predictable and the meter is solid and consistent. Rhyme and meter, together, serve as a powerful memory trigger. How many lyrics do you think you'd remember if nothing rhymed?

Rhyme has other values as well. It can create a sense of symmetry and completion, and it offers an opportunity to enhance the power of a line by giving it an established "stage" to deliver a payoff. Rhyme is a tool you can't afford to ignore. To drop it deliberately just to be different, or assume it's not important, isn't a sensible attitude for someone who's trying to be a successful songwriter. Not that there aren't exceptions to the rule, but when you want the odds in your favor, you use every tool you have.

In musical theater the rhymes are expected to be perfect (unless the character wouldn't rhyme perfectly). It's not so much a question of whether the rhymes work, but of how they're judged by critics who hold the power of life and death over a production. Musical theater boasts a long history of exceptional craftsmanship and they aim to keep it that way. Whenever you start to think it's too hard or impossible to come up with perfect rhymes in a context that makes them feel perfectly natural, study the masters. For instance, listen to the songs in the Barbra Streisand film, Yentl, for the work of lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. We need such standards to remind us that it's still possible to put in the extra effort and come up with perfect rhymes without sacrificing naturalness.


Perfect - Stressed sound that ends the line is identical, preceding consonant is different: god/quad, action/fraction, variety/society. This is without question the most powerful rhyme you can use. There is an ongoing debate among writers about whether it is the only form of rhyme to be used. My feeling is that you should make every effort to find a perfect rhyme without having to alter the meaning of the line. If you can't find one, then opt for the next best. However, first try changing the root word (The one you're trying to find a rhyme for.) Are there other words (or another line) you could substitute that would offer more rhyming possibilities? Frequently, in exploring further, you come up with a better line anyway because you've spent more time in the research process than you did when you came up with the first thing that came into your head.

Imperfect, near, false, slant, oblique, or half-rhyme - Common and quite acceptable in pop music. It approximates rhyme and some would argue strongly that it shouldn't be called rhyme at all, but assonance. Anyway, let the nitpickers argue. Sometimes you just can't find a perfect rhyme to fit your meaning and you do find the imperfect "near" rhyme as in port/fourth, loss/wash, around/down, shaky/aching. I highly recommend Pat Pattison's book, Writing Better Lyrics. He offers a valuable strategy called "family rhymes." You can also find that excerpt in my own book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting. Thanks Pat!

Masculine or "one rhyme" - Single-syllable rhyme, as in pack/rack or a multi-syllable word in which the last syllable rhymes, as in compromise/idolize.

Feminine or "two rhyme" - Two-syllable rhymes, with the stress on the first. The vowels and inner consonants must match, as in maker/shaker, masquerading/degrading.

Three rhyme - The last three syllables rhyme and the consonants that precede them differ, as in medium/tedium, facilitate/rehabilitate.

Open rhyme - Rhymes that don't end in hard consonants. Use them wherever possible on notes that are to be held, as in glow/snow, fly/try.

Closed or stopped rhyme - Rhymes that end in a consonant (b, p, d, t, q, and k) that makes us close our mouths and that can't be sustained when sung. M, n, l, and r can be sustained. V, f, z, and s can be sustained but don't sound very pleasant. S's (sibilants) drive recording engineers crazy. Pay close attention to these "singability" factors as you write your lyrics.

Internal, inner, or inside rhyme - End rhyme, of course, occurs at the end of the line. Internal rhyme occurs within the line, as in "The fate of the great state."

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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