Rhyme Schemes: Same Song, Different Journeys

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Videos by American Songwriter

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Perth, Australia singer-songwriter Rachel Dillon. Photo via Facebook page Rachel Dillon Music.

I did a master class in Perth, Australia and worked on a song with Rachel Dillon. Here are the first two verses and the chorus from her lovely song, “Hell For Leather”:

We grew up together in the same small town a
Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b

You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

We had an interesting time talking about this song. We looked at the images, how they SHOW rather than TELL — creating pictures in our own heads, involving us in the song, because they’re our pictures. The earlier in the song you see them, the earlier the song becomes about you.

So let’s switch the first two lines of verse 1. The summer storms line shows us something, and creates a nice bag of dye that drips downward to color the lines below it:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
Growing up together in the same small town a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b

You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

Compare the two versions: with lines 1 and 2 switched, and without them switched. See how putting the image first drips its colors onto the ‘Growing up …” line? Almost always works better. And, because it’s the first thing we see (therefore, in a big spotlight), it colors the whole thing more deeply. Read both versions and see what you think. I’ll wait.

But we especially talked about Rachel’s use of rhyme. Her aabb verse rhyme scheme, carried for two verses, which actually creates four sections, not two. It stops motion four times. A very stable feeling: lots of stops.

We tried turning both verses from aabb rhyme schemes into abab rhyme schemes to create a 4-line journey:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
Growing up together in the same small town a
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b

You chased the ducks I ran from the drake c
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van d
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake c
And we ran, and we ran d

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

This is still stable, but you move smoothly through four lines without stopping. With abab cdcd, you don’t stop every 2 lines, and it creates two units of 4 lines, while aabb, ccdd, creates four units of 2 lines. Now they feel like verses, with the lines moving into each other.

Then, instead of abab, we tried unrhyming the first couplet to create a less stable, more open journey, xxaa. You don’t hear any rhyme until the last syllable of the verse, ending with a surprise rhyme at the 4th line of each verse. I especially like the feel of the 2nd verse this way:

Standing watching summer storms rolling by x
Growing up together in the same small town x
You with hair of gold and a will so strong a
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song a

You chased the ducks I ran from the goose x
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake x
Pretended to drive ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van b
And we ran, and we ran b

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

Finally, we tried abba, hoping to create a more wistful feeling with the open, unstable motion it creates:

Standing watching summer storms coming down a
You with hair of gold and a will so strong b
I hardly said boo but my heart was full of song b
Growing up together in the same small town a

Pretended to ‘cross the state in an abandoned old van c
We skipped rocks on the dam and swam in the lake d
You chased the ducks I chased the drake d
And we ran, and we ran c

Hell for leather, hell for leather
Hell for leather, down Bellbird Hill

I like the effect of the internal rhymes van/dam/swam in blurring the motion, helping to create a floating, nostalgic feel. Pretty neat.

A rhyme scheme can be an expressive tool. We tried four rhyme schemes on “Bellbird Hill” and each created a different journey — same words, just a different arrangement of rhyme scheme (motion) to create the different emotions.

It’s nice to be able to lay out the choices — to know what choices you have and how each one makes you feel. Then you can choose the one that feels best to you. But always try your options. You never know.

Pat Pattison is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he teaches lyric writing and poetry.

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