Songwriter U: Surviving Rhyme; Meeting the Family

In the history of songwriting, how many moons (or stars) above are there? How many flaps of the wings of a dove? These countless moons, stars and doves should feel resentful, like teenagers who get attention only by hanging with someone more popular. They aren’t really wanted for themselves. They’re in the lyric because they rhyme with love.

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The writers of the standards got all the good rhymes and turned most of them into cliches. Now they (from the grave) and their descendants (from Broadway) cajole: “We only use Perfect Rhymes. You should too. They may limit your options and saddle you with cliches, but they are the mark of true craft.” Why do they remind me of my grandfather reminiscing about courageous 30-mile walks through icicle storms to school, uphill both ways? Wasn’t that why Grandpa’s generation was so obsessive about perfecting car heaters in the first place?

Lyricists should try to avoid cliche rhyme but, too often, the leftovers aren’t worth it. The writers of the standards delivered generous helpings of above/dove/love but usually had the good sense not to use love/foxglove. So why should we? What a horrible choice they give us: moldy cliches or ugly leftovers. 

Don’t be depressed. You simply have to learn how to find fresh rhymes that help you say what you mean. It’s easier than it seems. 

Let’s look at Family Rhyme — a rhyme type based on families of phonetically related consonants. 

Remember the three conditions for Perfect Rhyme:

  1. Identical vowel sounds
  2. Consonant sounds after the vowel are the same
  3. The syllables begin differently

Family Rhyme modifies the second condition:

  1. Identical vowel sounds
  2. Consonant sounds after the vowel belong to the same phonetic family
  3. The syllables begin differently

This little change makes a big difference. 

Here’s a chart of the three important consonant families:

Table of Family Rhymes:

According to the table, rub/up/thud/putt/bug/stuck are Family Rhymes, as are  love/buzz/judge/fluff/fuss/hush/touch and strum/run/sung. Remember, lyrics are sung, not read or spoken. When you sing, you exaggerate vowels. And since rhyme is a vowel connection, lyricists can use Family Rhymes instead of Perfect Rhymes.

Say you are looking for a rhyme for safe. Look at the consonant that comes after the vowel. “F” is the member of the fricative family of consonants. 

Look at the table above and introduce yourself to the fricatives. Fricatives slow the air flow out of your mouth enough to cause friction, a little like a leaking air hose. 

To find a Family Rhyme for safe, just look in your rhyming dictionary under the vowel sound (in this case, a as in ale) followed by members of f’s family and presto, you have a Family Rhyme. You just need to meet f’s family.

First, look under f’s companions, the closest relatives for fricatives. 

ath: faith

as: case, ace, breathing-space, chase, commonplace, disgrace, embrace, grace, lace, race, space … Not bad. Some nice stimulants for your imagination. Not much under ash or ach. So cross the line to f‘s partner, v.

av: behave, brave, cave, grave, shave, slave, wave

Now to the other voiced fricatives:

az: blaze, craze, daze, haze, maze, phrase, paraphrase, praise, (“Mayonnaise” was tempting.)

The nice thing about a word like “daze” is that it may sound fresh again away from its cliche connection to “haze.” That’s one strength of Family Rhymes: They surprise you. They make fresh connections.

aj: age, cage, page, rage, stage

Depending on the vowel, some fricatives may add nothing useful, while others bring rhymes cascading in. Usually you can quadruple your choices with fricative Family Rhymes.

Plosives work the same way. Plosive means just what you think; consonants that make a little explosion by interrupting the air column, then exploding.

Say you want to find a rhyme for rut. First, of course, look for Perfect Rhymes. 

rut: cut, glut, gut, hut, shut

Now go to the table of Family Rhymes and introduce yourself to t’s relatives. D is t’s closest relative. (Partners are the closest relatives for plosives.) Now, in your rhyming dictionary, look up the vowel sound (u as in “up”) ending with d

ud: blood, flood, mud, stud, thud

Nice possibilities, especially “flood” and “mud.”

Now, go back to t‘s companions, k and p. (Consonants can have several companions — but only one partner.)

uk: buck, duck, luck, muck, stuck, truck

Even better. All of these are nice.  Now to p.

up: hard-up, up, make-up

We’ve looked at the closest relatives to t, its partners and companions. Finally, look at b and g

ub: club, hub, pub, scrub, tub

These don’t seem quite as good until you sing them. (They are meant to be sung.) “Ruuuut. Scruuuub.” Not so bad. Now g. (Be careful with “g.” Sometimes it works, but sometimes it changes the sounds of the vowel. It happens to work for this vowel, but be in alert with others, especially the short vowels.)

ug: bug, jug, lug, plug, shrug, snug, tug… these are some of the best yet. 

Plosive Family Rhymes for rut again at least quadruple your choices without much damage to even the most persnickety ears. They’re not all terrific, but the five choices offered by Perfect Rhyme were even less terrific.

Finally, Nasals. Nasals, again, means what you think it means: all the sound comes out of your nose. Look up Perfect Rhymes for home.

home: catacomb, comb, hippodrome, honey-comb, Nome … I resisted “roam” because, with “home,” it is an expected cliche. (It might sound fresh, though, rhymed with “alone.”)

Now introduce yourself to the nasals and look for Family Rhymes. 

on: blown, bone, chaperone, cornerstone, gramophone, grown throne, undertone, zone

There is plenty to choose from here, depending on what you’re writing about. No need to pick commonplaces like “alone,” “phone” or “own” with all this interesting material. Oddly, “alone” is a cliche rhyme with “home.” Even some sticklers for Perfect Rhyme use it, maybe without noticing.

Introducing yourself to the family isn’t hard, and its rewards are amazing. So there’s no reason to be tied in knots using only Perfect Rhyme when its differences with Family Rhyme are so small. You’ll have much more leeway saying what you mean, and your rhymes will be fresh and useful. Declare your independence. Join the family. 

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

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

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