Rhyme or Reason: Part 5

by Mary Dawson

OK... Admit it! You tended to doze off during your seventh period high school English class, right? That's why you missed what I'm about to tell you. And now that you're a serious songwriter, you will definitely want to add these tools to your rhyming toolkit.

The three techniques we will focus on in this session all begin with the letter "A." Although they may sound like mysterious mosquito-borne diseases, they are actually very effective language devices that can add color and flair to your lyrics. They are: Anaphora, Assonance and Alliteration.

If you've been following our study, you know that we've been examining all kinds of Rhymes -- Perfect Rhymes, Near Rhymes, Line Rhymes, Couplets, Quatrains and various ways to combine all of them into interesting lyrics. Like a painter who combines primary colors to create many different shades, you'll find that the more you practice these rhyming techniques, the more creative your lyrics will become ... and if you learn to add anaphora, assonance and alliteration to your rhyming "palette," you will be able to add even more splashes of color to your songs.


Anaphora (pronounced: a-NAPH-ora) simply means the repetition of the same word, a like-sounding word, or a short phrase at the start of successive lines or verses.

Effective songwriters know that their mission is to teach listeners their songs. They want people to go away humming the melody and singing the words. Repetition is, of course, imperative in teaching and when the same words or phrases are repeated in several lines, the music can also follow the repeated sequences to reinforce the memorability of the lines. This provides what is known as a "secondary hook" for the song -- adding yet another point of contact with listeners and keeping them engaged.

An exquisite example of anaphora can be found in the breathtaking song by Beth Nielsen Chapman called "Sand and Water." It was written after the death of Beth's husband and expresses the aloneness of her loss. If you are unfamiliar with this song, please stop here and download it from iTunes. It will be the best 99 cents you ever spent. The lyrics can be found on genius.com.

Notice the repeated phrase, "All alone I..." which begins almost every line in the A sections of this AABA song, and the parallel phrases in the B or bridge section that say, "I will see you...I will hear you...I will know you..." Also listen for the way the lovely melody follows the anaphora to create a haunting repetition that will not leave your heart or mind.


The next "A" is Assonance. Assonance is the repetition of a particular vowel sound. It is the heart of the "near rhyme" or imperfect rhyme and is sometimes called a vowel rhyme.

For instance, the word love is so common in songwriting that we quickly use up the perfect rhymes like above, shove, glove, dove, and of. But if we use assonance we can increase our options to words like enough, tough, and rough (which end in a similar consonant and have the same vowel sound -- short u). We could even go to words like up or flood or even hug and tug and still keep the vowel rhyme. Most listeners' ears are satisfied by assonance and are delighted by the fresh word that is less predictable than the obvious perfect rhymes.

It is important for songwriters to become sensitized to vowel sounds, which are the most prominent sounds in any syllable. The use of assonance can become intuitive to a songwriter after a while and can help to create rhymes within a line, making a lyric more intriguing to the listener's ear. In selecting words for a particular line, think about words with similar vowel sounds and use them -- if you can do so without spoiling the meaning of the line.

Here's an example from a song called "Bittersweet"1, which I wrote with Nashville composer, Brian Wooten. In the first lines of verse one, I tried to use the short and long "E" vowel sound within the lines to create internal rhymes.
You left me with mem'ries too hard to explain
Mem'ries of love so splendid, blended with pain
A little later in the verse I went back to that short "E" sound with
I remember nights so tender
Our love held back the dawn
I thought we would last forever
And then you were gone
Notice that the words tender and forever are vowel rhymes because they have different consonant sounds, but to the listener's subconscious they sound like real rhymes and make the lyric "tight" and well-crafted.

In the second verse I used the long "O" that, in my opinion, sounds hollow and sad and matches the melancholy message of the song.
Rollercoaster emotions
Have torn me apart
And there is a restless ocean
Deep in my heart
As you practice using assonance, think about the sounds of the vowels and the feelings they convey. Long vowels, of course, are more noticeable and dramatic. They are great for matching with sustained notes of melody because that's where the singer can really open up the throat and hold the note. Short vowels, on the on the hand, tend to be more conversational and should probably be used where the lyric is more conversational as well. Practice "painting" with assonance. Remember, if you goof up...you can always paint over it and try again! That's called re-writing!


The last "A" word is Alliteration. It could almost be called the "counterpart" of assonance, because it is the repetition of accented consonant sounds in successive or neighboring words. It is also often called 'head rhyme.'

Examples of alliteration can be found in the tongue twisters we used to say as children like:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers
A peck of pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick

A fun rhyme...but it brings up an important point. If alliteration is overused, it tends to make the lyric sound comical and light -- even trite. But light songs do have their place in music and can delight a crowd, so many performers include them in their repertoire.

It's a little like choosing jewelry for an outfit. I have a pair of Texas Chili Pepper earrings that go great with denim or something casual, but they would definitely NOT be appropriate with an evening gown. You just have to develop "good taste" when it comes to using techniques like alliteration and you will soon have an instinctive feel for what works in certain songs.

A wonderful example of a hit song using alliteration is "Betty's Got a Bass Boat," written by Craig Wiseman and Bernie Nelson. It's a fun song about a lady who came up with a very unique plan for becoming popular with the opposite sex. The chorus especially uses alliteration, but if you look carefully, you can find some great assonance too. Check out the lyrics here.

Just as with vowel sounds, it's important for songwriters to really start paying attention to the sounds of the various consonants. Some consonants are more difficult for vocalists to sing and record -- like the "P" sound which tends to "pop" in the microphone when recording. There are several different categories of consonants. As you write or listen to other songs, try to identify them. They are:
Dentals - d, t, th (as in thistle) or TH (as in therefore)
Labials - b, p, m ('p' is most difficult for the singer in this group)
Gutturals - g, k, ng
Liquids - l, r
Nasals - n, ng, nk
Sibilants - s, z, sh, zh ch, j (too many of these close together can be problematic for a singer to present)
Labiodentals - f, v
Notice that many of the above classes of consonants have similar sounds and can be combined to create "faux alliteration" that gives the illusion of rhyme where there isn't even a similar vowel sound. For example, the one-syllable words match and ledge have different beginning consonants, different short vowel sounds and different (but similar) ending sibilant consonants. Or how about two-syllable words like harvest and promised. The ending consonant is the only real similarity, but it makes the words sound as if they rhyme.

Still another variation of alliteration is simply to use the same consonant sounds in stressed syllables throughout a line or several lines. Even though the consonant doesn't actually come at the beginning of each word, it falls on a stressed syllable so it sounds like alliteration to the ear. Here's an example from a lyric I wrote for a Christmas song called "Only Those."2 Notice the consonant "L" sound and how often it appears -- sometimes at the beginning of the word, sometimes in the middle and sometimes at the end.
At Christmastime the light of Christ shines on us still
In old familiar carols that proclaim good will
In every bell that tolls good news through winter's chill
God beckons us to come just as we are
I hope that by now you have begun to see that the craft of rhyming goes far beyond moon, June, tune and spoon. In fact, we have only begun to scratch the surface on the unlimited combinations of words that can delight the ear and touch the heart. Challenge yourself -- force yourself -- to add a new rhyme scheme or technique to every new song you create. Pretty soon you'll find yourself a complete 'word junky' and amazed at your own genius!

As Robert Frost has so well put it:
Life is tons of discipline. Your first discipline is your vocabulary; then your grammar and your punctuation. Then in your exuberance and bounding energy you say you're going to add rhyme and meter. And your delight is in that power.
Rhyme away!

1 Bittersweet / Words and Music by Mary Dawson and Brian Wooten © 1998 CQK Music / Curb Music
All Rights Reserved

2 Only Those / Words and Music by Mary Dawson and Bruce Greer © 1993 CQK Music
All Rights Reserved

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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