Gordon Lightfoot - The Last Time I Saw Her

Song Lyrics: To Rhyme or Not To Rhyme

There’s an automatic assumption by many that song lyrics must rhyme. In actuality they don’t. Whether to rhyme or not is often dictated by the genre. Country and pop lyrics are more likely to feature rhyming, while other genres (progressive rock, for example) may not make any attempt to rhyme.

To Rhyme

So let’s look at rhyming as a positive feature of good lyrics. Good rhyming, whether an exact rhyme or a close match, helps to strengthen the structure and form of good lyrics. It does this by setting up an expectation by the listener that each line of lyric will have a partner line that ends with the same sound and pulse, and it is a strong enticer to keep listening.


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Rhyming can sound clever and creative when done well. It helps audiences pick up the form of the melody by acting as a kind of “cadential ending”, much as we might pick up phrase lengths from the placement of a V-I type of chord progression cadence.

By changing where we place the rhyme, we can make musical phrases sound long, and then suddenly shorter and more musically energetic. Read through the verse of The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” and make note of where the rhymes happen. The middle of each verse line features an approximate or close rhyme, but the ends of the lines use more exact rhymes.

When the chorus arrives, all rhymes, both inner-line and end-of-line rhymes, become exact, and this helps to boost musical energy:

VERSE

Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man: no time to talk
Music loud and women warm,
I’ve been kicked around since I was born

CHORUS

Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive

Done well, rhyming has a lot going for it, and the job of a good lyricist is to use rhyming as a way of boosting musical energy.

Not To Rhyme

But rhyming has a series of potential pitfalls. Chief among them is the possibility of creating corny, empty lyrics, all for the sake of trying to find a word that rhymes:

My life is a fable
I’m a phoney, that’s my label…

Rhyming, practically by definition, limits the number of words you have to choose from, so it can be a challenge to come up with a rhyming lyric that reads and sings naturally. The good lyricists do it, often with a lot of work and time.

The best way to improve your rhyming abilities is to read lyrics of songs you like — songs and writers that are known for their lyrical prowess — and get a feel for how good rhyming works and feels. Look for exact and approximate rhyming, and pay special attention to the rhyming endings.

You should notice that a rhyming word does not jump out at you or feel in any way awkward or stilted. A rhyme should aid the sense of relaxation that occurs at the end of a musical line.

Also, consider the possibility that you might have some lines rhyme, and others not, as in Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Last Time I Saw Her” (also recorded by Glen Campbell):

The last time I saw her face, her eyes were bathed in starlight and her hair hung long
The last time she spoke to me, her lips were like the scented flowers inside a rain-drenched forest
But that was so long ago that I can scarcely feel the way I felt before
And if time could heal the wounds, I would tear the threads away that I might bleed some more

Ultimately, the mark of a good lyric has little to do with whether the lines rhyme or not; it has much more to do with your abilities to create imagery, to use words that sound easily conversational, with melodies and rhythms that respect their innate and natural pulse.

Consider that to be your most important objective in the writing of lyrics. Rhyming can be an important aspect of good lyrics, but not at the expense of other more important qualities.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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3 Comments

  1. I can’t remember if I’ve posted this to Gary’s blog before, but the best rhyme site I’ve found on the web is rhymezone.com. Such a generator of lyrics ideas! They also do a great job with synonyms. It’s been awhile since I searched because I always go to rhymezone. Any others out there I should know about?

  2. How about the somewhat “random” rhyming scheme of John Prine? He appears to use an occasional rhyme just for good measure, but with no foolish consistency.

    I am an old woman
    Named after my mother
    My old man’s another
    Child growing old

    If dreams were lightning
    And thunder was desire
    This old house woulda burnt down
    A long time ago

    Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
    Make me a poster of an old rodeo
    Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
    To believe in this livin is just a hard way to go

    • Great example, Judson. When I read those lines, I find the occasional rhyming is just enough to grab my attention in a momentarily intense sort of way. (Particularly the final lines.)
      -GE

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