Rhyme or Reason: Part 3

by Mary Dawson

I believe it was Mark Twain who once commented:
Anybody can write the first line of a poem. The trick is to make the second line rhyme with the first.
...which brings us to the next installment on the often-frustrating, sometimes-gratifying. always-intriguing subject of Rhyme.

In our last two segments we've been studying words that can be combined to produce rhymes and the difference between Perfect Rhymes and Near Rhymes. While there are a still many "perfectionists" who don't accept Near Rhymes as being quite legitimate, I -- for one -- love the new freedom they allow the lyricist. I have previously defined Near Rhymes as words that surprise the ear with their unexpected compatibility. In other words, they sound "enough alike" to satisfy the ear's desire for sound similarity while simultaneously allowing an unending supply of vocabulary words to express the core idea of a great song.

But it's not just a matter of finding words that rhyme. There is also the very important matter of rhyme patterns or rhyme schemes formed by the lines of the lyric. A thorough understanding of the many options available can make the difference between "just another good song" and a worldwide hit!


Perhaps the most basic of rhyme schemes is the couplet. A couplet is simply two successive rhymed lines having the same lyrical cadence and forming a unit. The couplet has been in existence as long as human beings have been writing songs and it is still a very effective rhyme scheme because it is so easy to remember. Some of our earliest favorite songs are formed by couplets. Consider this wonderful lyric (stressed syllables are emphasized)...
Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Notice that this very famous, international, generational hit is basically made up of two simple couplets. Each couplet has two rhyming lines of seven syllables with four stressed syllables occurring in parallel places. The cadence or lyrical meter of each line is the same and matches exactly with the cadence of the melody. The first couplet is repeated at the end as a refrain.

Couplets, of course, can have any number of syllables per line in a variety of meters. Watch for couplets as you read poetry and listen to songs on the radio, but be careful that you don't become a "couplet-only" lyricist. Many novice songwriters overuse the couplet so that it becomes as clichéd and predictable as overused Perfect Rhymes (love, dove, above). It is wise to combine the couplet with another rhyme pattern to create interest and prevent boredom. What about trying a quatrain?


A quatrain is a rhyming unit of four lines rather than two. The most common is the simple 2/4 Quatrain -- in which lines two and four rhyme with each other but lines one and three do not. Below is a verse and chorus demonstrating masterful use of the 2/4 Quatrain. The song, We Will Always Remember, is part of my publishing catalog. It was written by some Colorado songwriters as a response to the Columbine Tragedy, but the lyrics seem just as appropriate for September 11, 2001 -- or for any painful loss. The verse section is made up of two 2/4 Quatrains and the chorus is written in the same rhyme scheme. (Again, I've added stresses to show the cadence of the lyric.)
We Will Always Remember1

On a day like any other
We never knew how much our world would change
Something happens in a moment
That makes us never look at life the same

Though today are hearts are breaking
And time is standing still
We'll face this day together
Knowing that our hope is real

We will always remember
The love that you shared - you touched our lives
We will never forget you
Your memory will always survive
Notice the skilful use of Near Rhymes in the crucial lines two and four. Also note that in the verse section the quatrains are slightly different from each other in cadence and number of stressed syllables, yet in each section lines one and three are similar in rhythm -- as are lines two and four.
OK...so we've learned a couple of good, basic rhyme schemes. Most aspiring songwriters become comfortable with both the couplet and 2/4 Quatrain and use them frequently in their songs. In fact, many of the submissions I receive as a publisher or for consideration on my radio show, I Write the Songs, are written in one of these two basic rhyme patterns -- and I use both of them often in my own writing. The couplet and the 2/4 Quatrain can almost be considered 'meat and potatoes' of effective songwriting because they are very effective and familiar, supplying rhymes in 'expected' places providing the payoff the listener's ear is waiting for. But once we have mastered these basics, we need to keep stretching ourselves to create lyrics that are still more enticing to the ear.

One way to increase the impact of the quatrain is not only to rhyme lines two and four ... but to rhyme lines one and three as well. While the listener's ear does not demand rhymes on the odd lines, it is pleasantly surprised when they occur and this extra tightness in the lyric serves to hold the crucial 'listener interest' all the way to the end of the song. I have termed this technique the Odd/Even Quatrain to distinguish it from the 2/4 Quatrain (above). Remember that one of the main reasons we use rhyme at all is to help listeners remember the song. So if we can use a few more rhymes than are absolutely necessary, the song will be more memorable. Let me add, however, that we should never sacrifice the meaning of the natural language just to produce a rhyme. Well-written rhymes should not "stick out like a sore thumb" but should seem spontaneous, as if they are just happening as the words flow.

Another little trick is to combine quatrains with couplets to provide contrast. Perhaps the verse section could be a quatrain and then change to a couplet in the chorus...or vice versa. Remember, the chorus (which contains the hook/title) should contrast and stand out from the verses. A change in lyrical cadence and rhyme pattern can help to provide the lift that will let the listener know we have arrived at the chorus.

Here's an example of a verse and chorus of one of my own songs, written with composer Cheryl Bocanegra, which combines the Odd/Even Quatrain with the couplet:
One and Only2

Odd/Even Quatrain:
How did it happen? I don't understand it
Was it a miracle that brought you here to me
All my life I looked for love - I schemed and dreamed and planned it
But I could never find someone to make my life complete

Pre-Chorus Couplet::
Now you're standing here right before my eyes
Don't have to be a genius to recognize

Chorus Of Couplets:
You're a one and only - there's no one quite like you
No one looks at life or looks at me the way you do

No one else can hold me when the world comes crashing in
I can't be lonely when I see your one and only grin

You're a one and only and because your love is mine
You'll be my one and only til the end of time
The song begins with an Odd/Even Quatrain (rhyming lines one and three as well as lines two and four) followed by a couplet which serves as a 'pre-chorus' build into the chorus. The chorus continues the rhyme pattern with three sets of couplets in matching lyrical meter or cadence.

You might also notice that there are some internal rhymes in this lyric -- in other words, rhymes that occur within a line rather than at the end of it -- such as:
All my life I looked for love - I schemed and dreamed and planned it
I can't be lonely when I see your one and only grin
Anywhere you can insert a rhyme naturally and still maintain the established meter or cadence of the line...do it!

One note of caution. Once you establish a lyrical cadence and rhyme pattern in the first verse, you must be careful to maintain it exactly in verse two. Remember, the same music will be used for both verses. If the verses don't 'match' lyrically, it will force the music to 'mutate' and will make the song seem to wander.

As usual, the best way to become fluent in the use of couplets and quatrains is to study the lyrics of the hits. Take note as to whether or not one of these rhyme schemes are being used and pay attention to where the stresses fall. Then write...write...write yourself! If at all possible, try to hold yourself to the Odd/Even Quatrain and combine quatrains and couplets to provide contrast and interest.

Next time we'll examine more rhyme variations that can add still more interest to your lyrics. Keep stretching yourself and you'll find yourself growing "rhyme after rhyme."

1 We Will Always Remember / Words and Music by Cindy Marotta and Sydney Hostetler © 1999 I Think I Can Music (BMI); All rights reserved. Used by permission

2 One and Only / Words and Music by Mary Dawson and Cheryl Bocanegra © CQK Music (ASCAP); I Think I Can Music (BMI); All rights reserved. Used by permission.

**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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