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Rhyming With Purpose, Part 2 | Songwriter's Toolbox
Songwriting is both an art and a craft, and much of the craftiness has to do with concealing the craft — the contrivance — to create a song that seems inevitable, and uncontrived. Yet craft elements, especially rhymes, are overt contrivances that don’t happen by accident.
We know music, at its best, is inspirational. Good music can often inspire a lyric, as a good lyric can inspire a melody. And rhymes can lead to content just as content can lead to rhymes.
As Bob Dylan explained, “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.”
That is a peculiar dynamic, striving to consciously stay in an unconscious state. It’s that fusion of art and craft again, of using the craft to shape the art while allowing for an artistic usage of craft.
Almost all the songwriters I’ve interviewed have explained that songwriting is more an act of following than leading. The creator moves in two directions at once, forward and backward. The form itself often will lead one forward to a new rhyme and backward to link to the preceding one. Backward to find that essential truth of the form which already exists in time, and forward in time to set it down, to preserve it.
I asked Paul Simon if he ever works “backwards” like that — coming up with a line and then going back to invent the set-up. “Yes,” he said, “but backwards is still an order. Songs move in many directions at once…”
Moving forwards and backwards at the same time, just as the listener to the song is propelled forward into the next line and backward to the previous rhyme at the same time.
WRITE THIS: Write a song around a title that ends with the word ‘love,’ setting up that title with a perfect rhyme. Also, use love in the main lyric; this is to focus and strengthen your ability to work within rhyme limitations. The aim is to create something that rhymes, yet seems natural, and uncontrived.
In rap and hip-hop lyrics, it’s common to dive into the waters of wordplay — often uncommon words are rhymed, and unusual rhymes are discovered. Take Busta Rhymes as an example, who in his song “Abandon Ship” used the unique rhymes ‘P.O.’ with ‘Leo,’ ‘Vanessa Del Rio,’ and ‘Neo Geo.’”
EXERCISE THIS: Do not think in terms of rhymes, but first write several lines that will end a quatrain or couplet. Then after you have those rhymes set in terms of content, phrasing and language, think backwards to potential set-ups for those rhymes, using the rhyme to lead you to interesting language.
Nowadays songs are replete with false rhymes. There was once a time when a false- or assonant rhyme was the sign of an amateur. The professional songwriter would never use a false rhyme. A true rhyme matches both the vowel sound of a word and the ending consonants. For example, ‘corn’ and ‘born’ are perfect, true rhymes. ‘Corn’ and ‘storm’ are false, imperfect rhymes because the ending consonants do not match.
Irving Gordon told me that he was always ashamed of one of his rhymes in his most famous song, “Unforgettable.” The song, which was made famous by Nat King Cole’s rendition and subsequently Natalie Cole’s GRAMMY-winning duet with her late father, rhymes the word ‘unforgettable’ with ‘incredible.’ Gordon felt that rhyming ‘unforgettable’ with ‘incredible’ was bad writing — that one has a ‘t’ sound, while one has a ‘d’ rhyme. Truth is, as I told him, rhyming ’incredible’ and ‘unforgettable’ would be a good rhyme for most songwriters today.
But one of many evolutions through which popular songs have been transformed is the idea that craft concerns are less important than content and true expression. As Jackson Browne told me, “You can only rhyme `world’ with `unfurled’ so many times,” he said. Many songwriters today agree, that a perfect rhyme is not as important as what the song says.
“I don’t think it’s important to rhyme perfectly,” Browne said. “There are songs you don’t have to rhyme at all. It’s just something we do … almost like a crutch. A song will sound fine if it rhymes, even though it doesn’t say a thing … You can open up the whole structure and form by choosing to rhyme less often.”
Even famous songwriters of previous generations — such as Sammy Cahn, who wrote lyrics for more than 80 songs recorded by Sinatra — felt rhyming could be a crutch of sorts. “If I wrote ‘Wind Beneath My Wings,’” he said, “I would have changed the lyric so it had perfect rhymes. Yet it is a No. 1 song with imperfect rhymes.”
WRITE THIS: Write an entire song with perfect rhymes. No slant, or imperfect rhymes, can be used. Even plurals are not okay, such as rhyming ‘one’ with ‘sons’. Then, in your next song, allow yourself to use false, or close rhymes, to see where that leads you.
Warren Zevon also utilized false rhymes all the time. “Nothing is perfect,” he said, “and imperfect rhymes reflect that imperfection closer to reality. Rather than spend your time matching rhymes, a songwriter should write something new, something special, something unique. Often a non-rhyme will focus the listener on a word more than a comfortable perfect one.”