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Rhyming With Purpose, Part 1 | Songwriter's Toolbox
Why rhyme? Do songs have to rhyme? Well, actually, no. There are some famous songs — like “America” by Paul Simon, “Moonlight in Vermont” by Blackburn & Suessdorf, or “I’ll Be Your Man” by The Black Keys — without any rhymes. But they are exceptions. Generally in songs, be they rock, rap, folk, blues, funk, or hip-hop, rhymes are integral to the solidity of the lyric. Rhyme adds a solid completion to a line that nothing else can replace. They not only complete a line sonically by matching sounds, they also link words in terms of associative meaning. One can play forever with the distance between the sound of rhymed words, and their meaning.
To examine usages of rhyme, we will look at songs from all eras and genres, from standards from previous generations, to modern classics and pop hits.
The artistry of rhyming does not require a remembrance of all great rhymes past. It has to do with how one uses those rhymes. Many verses in songs since the 1960s are composed of quatrains — four lines — and the most common rhyme scheme we hear in quatrains is abcb, in which the second and fourth line rhyme, and the first and third do not. This is the most common rhymed form for a four line verse.
But there are more intricate ones. Bob Dylan has used countless rhymes that thousands, if not millions, of songwriters, have used. But his brilliance and amazing artistry lies not simply in the choice of rhyme, but in their usage. Although he’s more famous for exploding the content of popular song than other virtues, Dylan has been a remarkably virtuosic rhymer since his first songs, often using intricate rhyme schemes, like abab, which requires each line to rhyme, or aabb, which is also a quatrain in which each line rhymes. Much more common is an abcb pattern, in which only the second and final line need to rhyme and the first and third can be different.
An abab rhyme scheme is one Dylan has used often, and which every line rhymes, but the rhymes are intertwined. It’s a form from romantic poetry, used by Shelley, Keats and Byron. In Byron’s poem “When We Too Parted” you can see the seeds of multi-rhymed Dylan wordplay, and an abab scheme.
When I interviewed Dylan in 1991, I suggested to him that his rhyming reflects romantic poetry and Byronic verse. He immediately recited a verse by Shelley, from the poem “Men of England,” that showed Dylan knows romantic poetry, which explains his grace and ease with intimate rhyming patterns.
For example, in Dylan’s cinematic song “Joey,” he employs an aabb rhyme scheme, linking ‘fork’ and ‘New York’ in the final verse of this epic narrative, and then introducing a ouplet founded on two simple long `e’ rhymes — ‘Italy’ and ‘family.’ But they are rhymes which come on the momentum of the melody and groove — as opposed to existing on a page to be read — and sung with rhythm and soul, so that the result is an effortless, rather than forced, use of rhyme. The rhymes are seamlessly folded into the imagery and action, all in beautifully-metered rhythm, to create a powerfully visual effect.
SIDEBAR: As an experiment, try writing in the abab rhyme scheme and use only perfect rhymes, so that both the first & third as well as the second & fourth lines rhyme.
The use of rhyme in songs is a great meeting of the art and craft of songwriting. Art leads to the choice of word, the distinction of the image and its place in this rhythm. Craft comes as the way you set up that rhyme. And as artfully brilliant a rhyme you might have, without a crafty set-up, it will fail. The songwriter’s job, then, requires contriving something so that it seems uncontrived. Every rhyme is a contrivance, yet the challenge is to use them in a way that they seem natural, intrinsic to the song, unforced. Which requires, usually, an artfully crafty set-up rhyme.
A famous example is Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which, although written in the 20th century by a hit songwriter, resonates as deeply in our culture as the national anthem. Berlin wisely didn’t even attempt a rhyme for `America,’ as none exists that would not be clunky at best. So the ultimate line becomes “God bless America, our home sweet home,” with the word needing the set-up rhyme being ‘home.’
He accomplishes this by landing on an image: ‘the oceans, white with foam.’ Knowing that an image is always compelling, he gives the mind a picture which evokes an emotion, he gives us this oceanic majesty, although ‘white with foam’ is a set up for ‘home sweet home.’ When one thinks of America, it is not foam that’s foremost. Yet used as a set-up — the rhyme before the rhyme — its placement is not suspect, and the whole of the song concludes with a melodic cadence aligned with the final culminating rhyme, ‘home sweet home,’ that simply seems perfect. Yet its perfection has a lot to do with the songwriter’s art in concealing its contrivances.
TIP: Next time you’re stuck on finding a rhyme for a key word, consider reworking the lyric with a set-up rhyme. One way of doing this is making a quick list, prior to crafting the lyric, of all potential set-up rhymes for the title, or a key word. From that list, see if you can expand the set-up rhyme, so that it works more in terms of content. Then when crafting the lyric and matching it to music, use this list to launch you in the right direction.
Songs still rely on rhymes, especially when it comes to setting up the title. So many songs are built around the title, both lyrically and musically, and when the musical cadence agrees with the rhyme in landing on a title, few things are sturdier. In Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” for example, the chorus is anthemic, and the title is set up with a cinematic sweep of light across the whole nation.
When I interviewed Dylan in 1991, we discussed rhyming. A meticulous craftsman who is known to rewrite songs even after they are recorded, he’s always been an inspired rhymer. I asked him if rhyming was fun for him.
“Well, it can be,” he said, “but you know, it’s a game…It gives you a thrill to rhyme something you might think, well, that’s never been rhymed before.”
He then expounded on his method of combining the dictates of the craft with the spontaneity of this art. “My sense of rhyme used to be more involved in my songwriting than it is. Still staying in the unconscious frame of mind, you can pull yourself out and throw up two rhymes first and work it back. You get the rhymes first and work it back and then see if you can make it make sense in another kind of way. You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” I asked if working backwards like that was something he often did. “Oh, yeah,” he answered. “Yeah, a lot of times. That’s the only way you’re gonna finish something.”
It’s an understanding that is key to the conception and completion of a good song – one works backwards and forwards at the same time, much as a rhyme simultaneously propels the listener of a song backwards and forwards. As songwriters know, to create a verse with a rhyme structure, one often has to put rhymes in place first, and work backwards from there. So that in finding the set-up rhyme — such as Berlin’s foam — we often discover the heart of songs. In the necessary contrivance the art is discovered, and that is the soul and genius of songwriting, in which all its aspects come together organically and dynamically. The goal is to contrive this rhyme pattern in a way that seems uncontrived, so that the rhymes fall naturally in terms of phrasing and meter, but do not call attention to themselves. It is the aim of the songwriter to create words which flow with an inevitability – as if they are simply the right line, meant to be in that place – that conceals, seamlessly, the songwriter’s hand.
SIDEBAR: Devise a list of potential set-ups for a title, with emphasis on finding lines that are evocative and compelling on their own, and also happen to be perfect rhyme set-ups. In this way, when your set-ups are as compelling as your rhymed lines, you infuse the song with an inner structure of strength and inevitability.