Lyrically Speaking: Managing Couplets

Couplets, consecutive equal length lines that rhyme, are everywhere. Like Common Meter, they work perfectly with our 2 bars + 2 bars = 4-bars love affair. Every two lines, they resolve motion—they stop dead in their tracks. When you build your songs only in couplets, your structure is probably working against you. No matter how interesting your ideas may be, they’ll have to work harder to overcome stopping every two lines. Look at this:  

                                                                                    rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and frayed a                      4           

Stopped inside a small cafe a                      4 

The waitress stared before she spoke b                      4 

Then smiled and flashed her petticoats b                      4 

Let’s create some options. But before you continue, as in the last issue, write your own section to match mine. Then, as I manipulate mine, change yours.  

Step 1: Unrhyme your first couplet, like this:  

                                                                                    rhyme scheme     # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired x                      4           

Stopped inside a small cafe x                    4 

The waitress stared before she spoke a                   4 

Then smiled and flashed her petticoats a                    4 

Rather than a section that subdivides into two units of two, the section doesn’t end until the final line, which is bathed in spotlights.  

Step 2: Now, shorten the second line to a three-stress line, like this: 

                                                                                    rhyme scheme     # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired    x                      4           

Found a small cafe                         x                      3 

The waitress stared before she spoke               a                      4 

Then smiled and flashed her petticoats            a                      4 

Aha! You’ve unleashed all the techniques on Common Meter we saw in the last issue. Neat. 

Step 3: Add a five-stress line between lines 2 and 3, and another rhyming five-stress line at the end, like this: 

                                                                                     rhyme scheme     # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired                    x                      4           

Found a small cafe                                        x                      3 

The pláce was cóld, the wáitress cáme at lást           a                      5 

She stópped and stáred befóre she grínned          x                      4 

Then fláshed her pétticóats                            x                      3 

And dísappéared, a vísion fróm the pást            a                      5 

This feels pretty loose. The longer third and sixth lines provide the main glue, creating a six-line section that keeps moving all the way to the end.  Remember, the more words you have, the larger your section should feel. 

Step 4: Rhyme lines 2 and 5. 

                                                                                     rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired                      x                      4           

Found a small cafe                                        a                      3 

The place was cold, the waitress came at last            b                      5 

She stopped and stared before she grinned            x                      4 

Then quickly turned away                                   a                      3 

And disappeared, a vision from the past              b                      5 

The movement feels stronger, not quite so loose.  

Step 5: Now also rhyme line 1 with 4, so the section rhymes abcabc.  

                                                                                     rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired                      a                      4           

Found a small cafe                                  b                      3 

The place was cold, the waitress came at last           c                      5 

She stopped and stared before she smiled          a                      4 

Then quickly turned away                          b                      3 

And disappeared, a vision from the past      c                      5 

Now the motion is even more organized and precise, even with the imperfect rhymes. Which rhyme scheme should you use? It depends on what you’re saying. If the lyric’s emotion deals with uncertainty or loss, keep it looser. If its ideas are more factual or resolved, tighten it up. Make your structure reflect the emotion of the lyric. Prosody. 

Step 6: Here’s another way to approach the process. Start with your matched couplets, and “clean it out” by unrhyming them both. Then insert five-stress rhyming lines in the middle and end. It should be easy: 

                                                                                     rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and tired                   x                      4           

Stopped inside a small cafe                                     x                      4 

The place was cold, the waitress came at last            a                      5 

She stopped and stared before she turned           x                      4 

Then smiled and flashed her petticoats                x                      4 

And disappeared, a vision from the past            a                      5 

Step 7: Or, keep your four-stress couplets intact and add the rhymed five-stress lines, like this: 

                                                                                     rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and frayed                a                      4           

Stopped inside a small cafe                              a                  4 

The pláce was émpty, shé appéared at lást        b                    5 

The waitress stared before she spoke                                   4 

Then  smiled and flashed her petticoats                                  

And disappeared, a vision from the past                  b                     5 

Step 8: Here’s one more way to escape the unrelenting march of couplets—create an eight-line structure using 4-stress rhymed lines with shorter fourth and eighth lines: 

                                                                                     rhyme scheme    # stresses 

I hitched to Tulsa, worn and frayed                       a                      4           

Stopped inside a small cafe                                  a                      4 

Then she appeared, an angel’s face                    a                      4 

I sat there hypnotized                                    b                      3 

She stared at me before she spoke                  c                      4 

Then smiled and flashed her petticoats                      c                      4 

And vanished like some ancient ghost            c                      4 

A phantom from the night                              b                      3 

Lots of options, all of which create interesting motion. Any of the structures above could be useful alternatives to simple couplets. Remember, motion creates e-motion. How your structure moves, will, all by itself, make you feel something! It can add interest to what you have to say.  

Photo by Dan Senior on Unsplash

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