Lyrically Speaking: A Q&A on Rhyme with Pat Pattison

Why rhyme?

Songs are made for ears, not eyes. Because people listen to songs, you learn to write for eyeless ears. Rhyme creates the ear’s roadmap through the lyric ideas. It tells your ear where to go next, what’s connected to what, and when to stop. It can tell you to speed up or slow down. It has a profound effect on the musical structure, either supporting melodic/harmonic motion, or creating a counter to it. It’s probably the most valuable tool in a lyricist’s tool-belt. 

What’s the relationship between rhyme and musical constructs, such as melody, harmony, and form?

Rhyme’s interactions with melody, harmony and form create a plethora of creative possibilities. Foremost is rhyme’s capability of supporting melodic structures. For example, when melodic phrases are connected, having the same lengths, they invite rhyme to support their alliance. If rhyme accepts the invitation, there is a re-enforcement of the connection. When melodic phrases create a sequence, for example, long/short/long/short, they invite an abab rhyme scheme. Rhyming the sequence strengthens the motion.  If rhyme should decline melody’s invitation, or work against it, it’ll create tension, which can be quite fruitful in supporting unstable ideas.

Rhyme also works either as a companion or as a counter to harmony. Often a section will close with a rhyme, saying, “I’m finished,” while the harmony counters with a subdominant or dominant function, asking to move on. This division of labor creates two equal and important messages: “I’m finished with this idea, but there’s something else coming.”

You talk about different degrees of rhyming in your book, such as cat/hat vs. cat/hack or cat/sit. How are these different degrees of rhyming useful in terms of conveying an idea? 

When you hit the tonic chord at the end of a section, you know you’re at a resting place. But, depending of how you voice the chord, you can create a more or less stable resting place. For example, voicing it with the 5th or the 3rd on the bottom is less stable than voicing it with the root on the bottom. 

Rhyme works like that too. A “perfect rhyme,” cat/hat, is fully resolved, like putting the root on the bottom. It stops motion fully and slams the gate shut. Cat/hack, because of the phonetic relation between t and k, creates a pretty strong effect too, but not quite as strong as cat/hat. It allows you to expand your rhyme possibilities while still remaining pretty stable: cat/hack, cat/nap/ cat/sad, cat/grab. 

As you move to less stable rhyme types, the rhyme will open the gate further, creating uncertainty and longing, potentially supporting the idea and emotion of the section, for example, cat/rats, cat/laugh, cat/spot. These could reverse the typical harmony/rhyme relationship; rather than the harmony asking for further motion while the rhyme stops, the harmony could stop (tonic) while the rhyme refuses to sit quietly, asking to move through the partly open sonic gate. So many interesting possibilities. And that’s what creativity is really about – options.

What are some of the common misconceptions that songwriters hold regarding rhyme? 

Several. Most onerous, that all rhyme should be perfect rhyme. That’s like saying that every section should end on the tonic chord, voiced in root position. No one believes that, because it fails to create options. English has 17 vowel sounds. Italian, Spanish, Japanese and many other languages have only 5. Depending only on Perfect Rhyme dramatically limits your ability to say what you mean and still rhyme. 

The second misconception, that finding a rhyme is a creative act. It isn’t. Occasionally when I’ve asked writers what rhyming dictionary they use, some have been indignant, as though to say, “I don’t cheat. I’m self-sufficient.” Others have looked at me sadly, as if hoping that someday I will abandon my artificial crutch and get in touch with my creative inner self.

The self-reliant writer who thinks rhyming is a spontaneous expression of personal creativity can usually be seen gazing into space, lost somewhere in the alphabet song, “discovering” one-syllable words. This “alphabet process” is certainly at least as artificial as a rhyming dictionary. Nothing about it is creative or pure, nor is it spontaneous. The worst part is its inefficiency. 

How is rhyme sometimes detrimental to a lyric?

Rhyme isn’t detrimental. It’s your friend. It’s a great brainstorming tool. I go into great detail in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Rhyming (2nd Edition) on how to use your rhyming dictionary to explore a song idea. It’s called a worksheet. (Stephen) Sondheim does it. So does Eminem. So should you.

Not understanding what your options are, or following the “rule” of perfect rhyme can be detrimental. It can lead you into saying something stupid because “Well, I needed a rhyme.” Or it can lead you into writing clichés: love/dove/above, fire/desire, hand/understand, eyes/realize. Know your options: rhyme schemes, rhyme types. 

Can you point us to a YouTube performance of a song by any artist with particularly interesting rhyming, and tell us what to listen for? 

Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” for its rhyme types in the 2 pre-choruses. 

Warren Zevon’s “Hasten Down the Wind” for use of Consonance Rhyme in the chorus.

The word creativity is not, and never will be, a synonym for spontaneous. Better, for the ability to choose between options. Know your options. Get creative.

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