Songwriter U: How Rhythm Schemes Can Affect Their Motion

We’ve been talking about couplets in the last two installments— how rhythm schemes can affect their motion. Rhythm schemes are indeed useful moving past the unrelenting march of couplets, but there are some other moves you may not have noticed. 

Videos by American Songwriter

In Chapter 17 of Writing Better Lyrics, I suggest, in a section of two couplets, unrhyming the first pair to create a surprise at the end of the section. From

We camp and swim at the river’s bend a
Having fun, forever friends a
Early mornings, woods and trails b
Hiking, laughing, telling tales b

To:
We camp and swim at the river’s bend
Having fun, forever true
Early mornings, woods and trails a
Hiking, laughing, telling tales a

Of course, how you unrhyme your couplet can open some interesting options. It got me thinking: maybe instead of simply changing one of the rhymed words, I might simply reposition it somewhere inside the line.

In two bars of 4/4 time, you have four fundamental strong positions: the two downbeats and the two third beats. Let’s see what happens when we reposition the end-line rhyme inside the line. Working with,

1   3   1 3

|We camp and swim | at the river’s bend |

    1     3       1    3

|Having fun, | forever friends |

We have three possible places to set friends. First, let’s try the downbeat of bar three so the rhymes are adjacent:

We camp and swim at the river’s bend
Friends forever having fun

The couplet is, indeed, unrhymed, but now there’s a bonus internal rhyme. Say it aloud or, better, make up a melody and sing it a few times, focusing on how it makes you feel. How does the contact of the two adjacent sounds affect the line? I’ll wait.

It made me slow down and gave some real warmth to friends. I felt bend tug on friend’s sweater, slowing it down a little, separating it from its adjective, and turning it into an adverb modifying fun:

Friends, forever having fun

Nice effect. That’s an option. So how would it feel if I put it on beat three of the third bar?

We camp and swim at the river’s bend
Forever friends having fun

Now how does it feel? Say it aloud or, sing it a few times, How does the more distant contact affect the line? I’ll wait.

The rhyme seems to light up friends on the third beat, giving it extra color, and again, at the end of bar three, bend tugs on friend’s sweater, locking forever friends more tightly together, and, almost as an afterthought, they’re having fun. It also turns forever into a more interesting adjective. 

Let’s try the downbeat of bar four:

We camp and swim at the river’s bend
Having fun, friends forever

Again, say or, sing it a few times. How does it feel? 

Rhyme tugs once again and separates friends from forever, emphasizing the friendships, more strongly connected to having fun, and letting forever echo and trail off…

Each of these options affects how the four bars move, as well as whatever different colors in meaning your repositioning of the rhyme might create. 

Let’s see what happens if we reposition the rhyme in the first line:

We camp and swim at the river’s bend
Having fun, forever friends

Here it is at the downbeat of the first bar:

At the bend of river, we camp and swim 
Having fun, forever friends

Again, say it or sing it a few times. How does it feel? 

There’s quite a distance between them now, and they’re asymmetrically placed in the bar, making the echo even harder to hear. Note that the short-i sound inriver and swimdo seem to connect since they are symmetrically placed in their bars.  So far, repositioning the first line’s rhyme doesn’t seem to pay any particular dividends.

Let’s try it on beat three of bar one:

At the river’s bend we camp and swim 
Having fun, forever friends

Sing it a few times. There’s less distance now, and since bend and friends both land on beat three, the parallelism makes their connection more audible. Friendsgets a little extra color with bend in this position.

How about the downbeat of bar two?

We camp at the river’s bend and swim
Having fun, forever friends

Did you sing it? How does it feel?

They’re closer now, and something really interesting happens here: with the asymmetrical contact (downbeat vs. third beat) It feels like friends wants to add more to rhyme swim. Something like:

We camp at the river’s bend and swim
Having fun, forever friends (and kin)

At any rate, this shorter distance makes the contact stronger, bathing friends in a warm glow. 

Interesting also how the parallel positions of bend and forever highlight the short-e vowel they share. It wasn’t so audible on the other beats.

Repositioning the first line’s rhyme affects how we hear friends at the end of line two, but doesn’t create any extra motion, whereas repositioning the rhyme of the second line affects not only the focus on friends, but creates extra second-line motion to boot. That seems to be an argument for repositioning line two’s rhyme word instead of line one’s. Either way, repositioning is a great way to move past couplets, creating a larger 4-line structure rather than two two-line structures. The benefit is creating an extra sonic connection inside the lines. 

We’ve gone down the rabbit hole a bit, but it’s worth your time and energy. You can’t compose with a tool or technique if you don’t know it’s there. Happy practicing.

Photo Gettyimages.com

Leave a Reply

Chris Shiflett  Continues to Evolve with Solo Album ‘Lost at Sea’—“Making This Record was Really Different Than Any Other Record I’ve Made”

Wrabel on Songwriting: “I’ve Tried to Stay True to What it is That I Love and Feel I Do Best”