Susan Cattaneo’s Songwriting Course: Rhyme For A Reason

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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One of the terms we like to use at Berklee is the word prosody to describe when the music matches the lyric content of a song. When Sheryl Crow sings, “You don’t bring me anything but down”, the melody drops on the word “down.” When Diana Ross and the Supremes sing, “Stop! In the name of love”, the music actually pauses along with the lyric. There is a union between what the lyric is saying and what the melody is saying to support it.

This concept can be applied on all musical fronts, from the melodic and chord choices you make to the instruments you use to create a song,

PROSODY IN STRUCTURE

Taking it a step further, the actual lyric structure can also match the lyric content of a song. What tools do we have to work with from a lyric standpoint?

We have line length, number of lines, rhythm and RHYME (and within rhyme – rhyme types).

Rhymes are one of the most important tools you have in your toolbox when writing a song. If a song is like a sentence, rhyme is the punctuation: the periods and commas of a song. It creates moments where we hear sonic connections between words, so we stop and notice what’s going on. It’s a highlighting tool that can be used to support the meaning of your lyrics. What you choose to rhyme and which kinds of rhyme you use will change how the listener feels when he or she hears your song.

“I’M SMART. I DON’T NEED A RHYMING DICTIONARY”

When I first started songwriting, I would get out a legal pad and I would write out the alphabet at the top of the page. If I came up with a line I wanted to rhyme, I would go through the alphabet one letter at a time. For example, Night…. rhymes with A’ight? Nope. Bite? Yes, got one! And so on. As I was going down my letters, I would throw in the “r” to make ‘fright” and “bright.” I thought I don’t need a rhyming dictionary. I’m well read, college-educated. Real writers don’t need rhyming dictionaries . . .

Ridiculous. The best writers in all genres from Sondheim to Eminem make their magic using some form of rhyming database or dictionary. There is no way, no matter how smart you are, that you can possibly know all the rhymes to all the words ever written. That’s just silly.

Do you have a Rhyming Dictionary? No? For heaven’s sake, why not? GO and get one…. right now…. I’ll wait until you get back….

Okay, back to my earlier “Night” rhyme, look at some of the wonderful words that I missed by not using the rhyming dictionary: sprite, excite, invite, reunite, delight.

So, please, make it your “go to” book from now on. It really makes the difference when you’re trying to avoid cliché writing. The first rhyme that pops into your head when you’re writing a song isn’t sometimes the freshest one.

NOTE: Why buy a rhyming dictionary book when you can use the Internet?? I like RhymeZone as much as anybody else…BUT, the Internet only gives you a limited search. You don’t have the experience of thumbing through the pages of a book.

Why is this important?

Sometimes, I can be scrolling through my dictionary, and just happen upon a word that strikes my fancy. For example, I was looking through my dictionary today for Night, I randomly saw the word Silk. What if I connected these two words in a song? The night was silk…the silk of night. Kinda cool, huh? The book provided me with an opportunity to see two disparate words together and make an interesting connection

WHEN NOT TO RHYME?
If rhyming in a song makes sonic connections, then what happens when you don’t rhyme? The choice not to rhyme is going to make your listener feel a little uneasy. The music is going to have places where connections are made. And if the rhyme isn’t there, our ears are going to notice it. So, not rhyming is as much a tool as rhyming is. It will create a sense of incompleteness, and if your song supports that theme, then choose not to rhyme. CHOOSE this because it is right for your song, and right for the prosody of the song!

RHYME TYPES
There are many kinds of rhyme types and each type affects how solid and resolved we (the listeners) feel. Rhyming a word with the same word makes us feel the most stable, not rhyming, the least stable. And in between, we have Perfect rhyme, Family Rhyme, Assonance and Consonance rhyme.

Let’s look at these:

Same word Rhyme:

Night/Night

(not getting a lot of oomph here. But I certainly feel comfortable)

Perfect Rhyme:

– vowel sound is the same, consonants before the vowel sound are different, consonants after the vowel sound are the same:

Night/Bright/Light

(this is a little more interesting. There’s more texture to the connections now)

Family Rhyme:

– vowel sound is the same, consonants before vowel sound are different, consonants after the vowel sound are phonetically related, meaning they sound similar, but are not the same:

Night/Type/Strike/Lied

(Lots of sonic texture here.)

Assonance Rhyme:

– vowel sound is the same, consonants before the vowel are different, consonants after the vowel are different:

Night/Life/Time/Rice

(lots of tensions in the word connections less here.)

Consonance Rhyme:

– vowel sound is different, consonants before the vowel are different, consonants after the vowel are the same:

Night/Hit/Cut/Matt

(now, we’re far afield from where we started. The “t” sound is the only connector)

No Rhyme at all:

Bright
Tree

(No connection between the words, so my ear doesn’t notice any connection to them sonically)

Rhyme can be an amazing tool to use or not use. And the rhyming dictionary is a great resource for you to make part of your toolbox. No matter the musical genre, rhyme can be instrumental in highlighting lines so that we as listeners are paying attention to the message you’re trying to convey.

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Susan Cattaneo is a Boston-based singer-songwriter who just released her fourth album Haunted Heart (buy it here). Her music has been played on country and Americana radio in over 30 countries, and she recently was a regional finalist for the New Mountain Stage contest. In addition to her performing career, Susan has been teaching Songwriting at the Berklee College of Music for 15 years.

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