by Brian Oliver
An extract from his new book, “Surprising Rhyming for Songwriters and Poets”, an alternative rhyming dictionary designed to help writers create unique rhymes and avoid tired old clichés. It contains over 150,000 rhyming solutions for some 1,400 different rhyme sounds.
As a music publisher I’ve listened to thousands of demos by aspiring songwriters and, despite always hoping to discover a fresh new talent, I’ve ended up feeling disappointed because I found I could predict what the next rhyme was going to be on almost every line. Inexperienced writers often weaken a potentially good song by going for the easiest and most obvious rhyme, or by using the same rhyme sound too many times in a row. This simply makes the lyrics sound boring, monotonous and colorless. As the legendary Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim once remarked: “The ears expect certain rhymes, so you want to fool them because one of the things you want to do is surprise an audience.”
It’s not enough to simply go through the alphabet trying to think of words that rhyme—irrespective of whether the chosen word helps to underpin the meaning of your song and drive the story forward. This lazy approach usually results in worn-out, clichéd rhymes that we’ve all heard countless times before.
Lyrics don’t always have to rhyme, of course, but rhyming is a mnemonic device that assists the memory and makes it easier for people to remember a song. Rhyming also plays an important part in giving a lyric a sense of form and symmetry.
“In a couplet, the first rhyme is like a question to which the second rhyme is an answer,” explains English poet James Fenton, a former Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. “In most quatrains [four-line verses], space is created between the rhyme that poses the question and the rhyme that gives the answer … it’s like a pleasure deferred.”
Historically, many pop songs in the rock era have featured ‘perfect’ rhymes where a one-syllable word is rhymed with another one-syllable word (such as ‘kiss’ and ‘miss’), or where two words have the same spelling in the last syllable (such as ‘love and ‘above’).
But perfect rhymes tend to get tedious. And many of the cleverest perfect rhymes have been used so many times over the years that they’ve now become clichés.
Hit songwriting is more sophisticated these days, and publishers and A&R reps have much higher expectations of lyricists. So, if you have a rhyme in your head, ask yourself if you’ve heard it before. If it sounds too familiar, try finding another way of saying it—perhaps by using a metaphor rather than just a literal rhyme, or an off-the-wall ‘imperfect’ rhyme.
Sometimes, simply putting an unexpected adjective or a visual descriptor (like Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea”) in front of a clichéd rhyming noun can surprise the listener and make the cliché sound less familiar.
You can often create a much greater impact by rhyming words that don’t have the same combination of letters but sound similar (such as ‘clown’ and ‘around’, or ‘made’ and ‘late’). This is because lyrics are meant for the ears, so how words sound is more important than how they’re written. It’s the similarity between the sound of the syllables (for example, ‘rougher’ and ‘suffer’) that creates the rhyme and engages the listener, rather than the words themselves.
“Rhyming doesn’t have to be exact anymore,” Bob Dylan told Paul Zollo of American Songwriter magazine in a 2012 interview. “It gives you a thrill to rhyme something and you think, ‘Well, that’s never been rhymed before’. Nobody’s going to care if you rhyme ‘represent’ with ‘ferment’, you know. Nobody’s gonna care.”
Dylan once admitted to Rolling Stone magazine that he stunned himself when he wrote the first two lines of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and rhymed “kiddin’ you” with “didn’t you”. “It just about knocked me out,” he said.
In fact, many established songwriters now try to steer clear of perfect rhymes because they’ve recognized that rhymes that are too exact can sometimes limit the expression of true emotion. Using imperfect rhymes to create word pictures—or to convey what you want to say more accurately—can often be much more effective than pure rhymes.
With imperfect rhymes (also referred to as false-rhymes, half-rhymes, slant-rhymes or near-rhymes), the vowel sounds are identical, but the consonants that follow or precede those vowel sounds are different and don’t match. For example: ‘forever’ and ‘together’, ‘time’ and ‘mind’, or ‘make’ and ‘fate’. The matching vowels are enough to make the rhyme work.
When people hear the word ‘man’, for example, they will naturally expect to hear something like ‘can’ or ‘ran’ as the rhyme. If you unexpectedly slip in a rhyme that has an extra consonant at the end (for example, the word ‘stand’), they may listen more closely to hear what comes next.
Unpredictable rhymes can also be created by varying the rhyme sounds in your choice of words. For example, a single-sound rhyme in a multi-syllable word (such as ‘indicate’ and ‘celebrate’ or ‘fingernail’ and ‘fairy tale’), You can also use double-sound rhymes (‘walking’ and ’talking’), or triple-sound rhymes (‘addiction’ and ‘prediction’).
Instead of rhyming a noun with a noun, or a verb with a verb, you can also create an unexpected rhyme by pairing different parts of speech, such as a noun and an adjective (for example, ‘guess’ and ‘pointless’).
Many experienced writers feel that using imperfect rhymes gives them greater freedom and flexibility to create word pictures. It also provides an ingenious way to avoid employing rhyming clichés or rhymes that are too obvious. For example, in her award-winning 2013 song ‘Brave’ (co-written with Jack Antonoff), Sara Bareilles (left) rhymes ‘outcast’ with ‘backlash’, ‘inside’ with ‘sunlight’, ‘there’ with ‘stared’, and ‘run’ with ‘tongue’.
Imperfect rhymes have always been used in hip-hop in conjunction with assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within lyric lines). In one section of his 1992 song ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, rapper Nas manages to rhyme the word ‘prosperous’ with the words ‘dangerous’, ‘blamin’ us’ and ‘hostages’.
If you study the latest chart hits and compare where the rhymes are positioned—and what kind of rhymes are being used—you’re likely to find much looser (and more conversational) ‘near rhymes’ placed in the middle of the lines in the verse, instead of at the end of each line (which is the traditional approach).
This is partly due to the influence of hip-hop since the late 1980s. Run DMC’s classic 1986 album Raising Hell is credited with paving the way for much greater use of mid-line rhymes rather than relying on end rhymes. Although internal rhymes had been used previously, they had never been employed so consistently over a whole album as on Raising Hell.
An internal rhyming pattern involves repeating vowels and consonants (and combinations of both) within each individual line. A good example of this is Phil Lynott’s classic Thin Lizzy song ‘With Love’ which includes the line: “I must confess that in my quest I felt depressed and restless”.
Using mid-line rhymes in this way helps to build the lyrical rhythm and can strengthen the forward motion of the verse.
You can surprise listeners by having your internal rhyme fall on the second or third syllable of a multi-syllable word instead of at the end—for example, by putting the rhyme on the syllable that is stressed most strongly in normal speech (such as ‘unachievable’ and ‘believable’).
You can also rhyme a multi-syllable word with a word that only has one syllable (such as ‘sublime’ and ‘time’).
In 1987, acclaimed hip-hop lyricist Rakim (right) pioneered the multi-syllabic approach to rhyming with compound rhymes that paired one word with two words, such as ‘righteous’ and ‘might just’. It was a style (since adopted by other rappers) that introduced a rapid, continuous, rhythmic flow, based on deeply-woven rhyme structures that incorporated internal rhymes.
Today, Eminem (who has admitted he often spends hours studying a rhyming dictionary) tends to fill his songs with more internal rhymes than anyone else in contemporary pop. He once told Rolling Stone magazine: “Even as a kid, I always wanted the most words to rhyme. If I saw a word like ‘transcendalistic tendencies’, I would write it out on a piece of paper and underneath I’d line a word up with each syllable. Even if it didn’t make sense, that’s the kind of drill I would do.”
Consistency is essential when it comes to creating impactful rhyming schemes. For example, if you use internal rhymes in the first verse, you should put them in the same place in the subsequent verses in order to maintain the kind of symmetry that listeners like to hear.
My new book, Surprising Rhyming, is a new kind of rhyming dictionary that aims to make it easier for writers to avoid clichés and craft rhymes that people may not have heard before. It contains rhyme types that are much broader than those found in traditional rhyming dictionaries which tend to show only ‘perfect’ or ‘true’ rhymes.
Surprising Rhyming is based on the findings of an in-depth study of the kind of ingenious ‘near’ rhymes used by influential songwriters and lyricists such as: Chuck Berry, David Bowie, Sara Bareilles, James Bay, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Sia Furler, Hozier, Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Carole King, Michael Kiwanuka, John Lennon, Lorde, John Mayer, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Van Morrison, Bonnie McKee, Randy Newman, Dolly Parton, Christina Perri, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Paul Simon, Stephen Sondheim, Taylor Swift, Cat Stevens, Bernie Taupin, James Taylor, Jimmy Webb, Lucinda Williams, Stevie Wonder … and many more.
Even when you’re using a rhyming dictionary like “Surprising Rhyming“ as a creative brainstorming tool, don’t always go for the most obvious rhyme word. By digging deeper, you can often discover rhymes that inspire new themes or fresh ideas that can take your lyrics in a more exciting (and less predictable) direction.
So challenge yourself … Surprise your audience!
# # # #“SURPRISING RHYMING” – The Alternative Rhyming Dictionary for Songwriters and Poets – is available from Amazon as a US paperback, a UK paperback, and also across Europe. Read more about the book HERE (USA) and HERE (UK).
A 5-star rated book at Amazon, “How [Not] To Write A Hit Song! – 101 Common Mistakes To Avoid If You Want Songwriting Success” is available from Amazon as a US paperback, a UK paperback and as an eBook from Amazon’s Kindle Store. It is also available from Apple’s iTunes Store (Books/Arts & Entertainment/Music), Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, and KoboBooks.
Read a FREE sample of the book HERE (USA), HERE (UK), HERE (Australia) and HERE (Canada).
“How [Not] To Write Great Lyrics! – 40 Common Mistakes To Avoid When Writing Lyrics For Your Songs” is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble as a US paperback, UK paperback and as an eBook from Amazon’s Kindle Store. It is also available from Apple’s iTunes Store (Books/Arts & Entertainment/Music), Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, and KoboBooks.
Read a FREE sample of the book HERE (USA), HERE (UK), HERE (Australia) and HERE (Canada).