Rhyme or Reason -- Part 2

by Mary Dawson

Rhyme is Ear Candy!

Just as Hershey's Kisses are a treat for the palate, words that rhyme well are a treat for the ears. There is something intrinsically satisfying when the human ear picks up words that match and fit together sonically. Rhyme combines the element of sound similarity with the element of surprise to bring fresh interest to words. For the songwriter rhyme is an amazingly effective tool for catching and holding listeners' attention all the way to the end of the song. But the flip side is also true. Nothing can kill interest in a lyric like a clichéd or overused rhyme that you can feel coming long before it arrives.

For most of the first fifty years of the Twentieth Century, hit lyricists only allowed themselves to use Perfect Rhymes in which the stressed vowels and ending consonants of two or more words matched exactly (true/blue; love/dove/above; weather/together) But no matter how clever or creative the lyricist may be, eventually Perfect Rhymes start to become clichés. In order to remain fresh and interesting, lyricists must begin to explore the world of Near Rhyme.

Near Rhymes have many technical subdivisions such as Augmented Rhyme, Diminished Rhyme, Para-Rhymes and Consonance. (For a more detailed description of each of these, Sheila Davis' books on lyric writing from Writers Digest are excellent). But I suggest a simpler definition:
Near Rhymes are words that surprise the ear with their unexpected compatibility.
Near Rhymes are, first and foremost, fresh vocabulary words -- words that are not expected or anticipated in a lyric. They usually have the same or similar stressed vowel sounds and similar lyrical cadence or rhythm. They just sound interesting together. They make the listener's ears "perk up" and pay attention to what is being communicated in the lyric.

In my opinion, one of the best illustrations of Near Rhyme in a contemporary song is the famous Police song, "Synchronicity" by Sting. Using a balance of both Perfect and Near Rhymes, Sting combines fresh and interesting descriptive words that are anything but run-of-the-mill vocabulary. He juxtaposes words like principle ...invisible... imperceptible... inexpressible... connectable. These words are not so difficult that the ordinary person can't understand them, but they do challenge the mind a bit and cause the listener to think. And although the ending syllables may not match exactly, these words work because they are similar enough to satisfy the ear's desire for rhyme. They also perfectly and intelligently define the meaning of the title word, Synchronicity. I recommend that every aspiring rhymesmith study this song in depth.

Sting demonstrates in "Synchronicity" (as well as in many of his other lyrics) a grasp of what I like to call Rhyming Balance. He strives to use Perfect Rhymes wherever possible, but never sacrifices the overall meaning of the song -- or the natural use of language -- just to make a Perfect Rhyme. The lyricist's objective is always to make the lyric appear spontaneous -- as if the singer is effortlessly and naturally communicating the point of the song in the most interesting way possible. It means that you must walk the tightrope between refusing to "dumb-down" your listeners on the one hand and refusing to speak over their heads on the other. When that balance is achieved, songs begin emerging from the "Good" category into the realm of "Great."

Here's how Jimmy Webb puts it:
Even if writers are successful in using commonplace words and rhymes (without indulging in innocuous clichés), they may deprive themselves of an enormous source of inspiration and opportunity in doing so. The interesting choice of word leads to the unique rhyme. The unique rhyme to an extraordinary line. The extraordinary line to an original perspective that makes a song stand out from the rest. By varying our word choices and being biased slightly in favor of the unusual, by giving our listener the benefit of the doubt in our assumptions of his/her intelligence, we grant ourselves the potential to create original and significant works, songs that will make a reputation for the writer as an innovator -- someone to be taken seriously. It is such a writer that producers and recording artists listen to almost without question, if for no other reason than curiosity.1

OK...So you are starting to get the picture! But the next question has to be, "How on earth do you learn the art and science of using both Perfect and Near Rhymes in this kind of delicate balance?" The answer is actually quite simple -- you have to be a "word junkie." You have to absolutely love words -- long words, short words, visual words, rhythmic words. You have to love words so much that you begin to develop a sensitivity and an instinctive feel for the sounds of words and syllables. You have to start noticing where words are formed on the tongue and in the mouth and become aware of new and different combinations.

I still remember a writing session several years ago when I happened to notice that the words touch and judge have very similar sounds. Although touch ends with the "ch" consonant sound, and the judge ends with the "j" sound, both sounds are formed by a similar placement in the mouth -- and although the stressed vowels are different, they sound the same. Eureka! A new and fresh combination! This discovery spurred me to think of other Near Rhymes like the feminine (two-syllable) rhyme of balance and challenge. While the words are spelled very differently, both have the same "short a" sound on the stressed syllable and end with consonants which sound very similar when pronounced. I spent the rest of the session like a kid in a candy store. I was on a "word junkie's high" finding new and exciting vocabulary words and blends of sounds I had never even considered before. I have been a huge fan of Near Rhyme ever since!

One word of caution! While rhyme restrictions have definitely been lifted for songwriters over the last several decades, there are still some Near Rhymes that are not recognized as "legit" and that immediately identify the inexperienced lyricist. For example, similar syllables that don't have matching stresses -- like the word ring with the word walking. While both words end in ing, the syllable is stressed in ring but unstressed in walking. The only way to make those words sound like they rhyme is by changing the stress in walking to wal-KING. And this is definitely a no-no.

Another unacceptable Near Rhyme is the combining of identical sounding words that are spelled differently -- like weak and week. Such words tend to be confusing to the ear because they require a visual interpretation in order for the listener to "get" what is being communicated. Since songs are primarily an audio medium and seldom have the luxury of visual reinforcement on a lyric sheet, they tend to lose the listener. Still another no-no is the Eye Rhyme -- words that seem to rhyme because they are spelled the same but are pronounced differently, like the words dough, rough or bough.

Finally, we must say a word about rhyming dictionaries. Opinions vary among hit lyricists as to whether such aids are really helpful or merely a "crutch" for the limited rhymer. In my opinion, all songwriters should go to their head rhymes first -- those word combinations that immediately come to mind -- cat, sat, fat, hat. But a good rhyming dictionary can dramatically increase your options for Near Rhymes -- especially those with double or triple syllables. I have a couple of favorites dictionaries that I recommend. The first is The Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary by Jane Shaw Whitfield. A friend and mentor of mine turned me on to this great tool over ten years ago and it has been a constant writing companion of mine ever since. In fact, I have worn out so many copies of the paperback that I have had the book hardbound. This dictionary gives single, double and triple rhymes on each vowel sound and opens up all kinds of ideas for Near Rhyme possibilities. This dictionary is not available in stores, but it can be ordered directly through the publisher, the Wilshire Book Company.

The other volume I recommend is The New Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary by Sue Young. This book is available through most retail booksellers.

To close this session I'll share one of my own songs in which I attempted to use both Perfect and Near Rhymes to create a fresh and interesting lyric. You can critique the song below and see if you think I did the job!

Has your life become a burden?
Are you worried and uncertain
About what's behind that curtain called tomorrow?
While you work to be successful
Are you stressed, oppressed and fretful?
Under all your heavy schedule
Is life hollow?
It's time to get a bit reflective
And take a loftier perspective
Angels can fly cause they take themselves lightly
They're carried on currents of love through the sky
So when you're weighed down, don't hold on so tightly
Lighten up just a little and you will know why
Angels can fly
Angels know they're loved and covered
So they calmly soar and hover
And they smile at one another
While they're gliding
When you have too much to handle
You can follow their example
Spread your wings, relax, be thankful
Soon you're flying
Life can be hard but you'll get through it
Just think about how angels do it
Words: Mary Dawson
Music: Cheryl Bocanegra
Copyright 2001/ CQK Music
Used by Permission/ All Rights Reserved

1Jimmy Webb, Tunesmith, p.54

Continue on to Rhyme or Reason Part 3.

**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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