There’s an obvious problem when it comes to writing lyrics that rhyme: the more diligent you are in creating a rhyme, the more limited your choice of words. The other side of that is this: creating a rhyming lyric that says exactly what you want to say can be quite a treasure.
The strength of your lyrics is going to contribute more to the overall endurance of your songs than almost any other component. In other words, assuming people are singing a song of yours 50 years from now, it’s most likely that the lyric is going to be the strongest contributor to its longevity.
A lyric gains power when it’s paired up with a melody that enhances its features. There’s a way to do that, and Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” — a 330-page eBook — shows you. The 10-eBook Bundle covers every aspect of songwriting – It’s time to take your songwriting to a new level of excellence!
A pithy, meaningful rhyme is wonderful. When the rhyme works, the words sparkle, and the pattern of similar sounds draws a listener in. There’s something cozy about words that share sounds, where the sharing is partnered up with an engaging internal rhythm.
But is it necessary? Can you write a good lyric that doesn’t seem to have any rhyming scheme at all?
Approximate (“Near”, “General”) Rhymes
Lennon and McCartney both opted for rhyming lyrics, but they often resorted to near rhymes, also called general rhymes. In a song like “Come Together”, we don’t particularly care if the words rhyme or not, or even if there’s much of a pattern to the rhyme scheme:
Here come old flat top
He come groovin’ up slowly
He got joo joo eyeballs
He one holy roller
He got hair down to his knee
Got to be a joker
He just do what he please
(“Come Together” – Lennon & McCartney)
Or this lyric from “All I Ask” – Adele, Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Christopher Brody Brown:
I will leave my heart at the door
I won’t say a word
They’ve all been said before, you know
So why don’t we just play pretend
Like we’re not scared of what is coming next
Or scared of having nothing left
A general rhyme usually means that the vowel at the end of one line matches the vowel at the end of another, but not specifically the consonant: “above” and “dug”, for example.
There’s something nice about general rhymes. You get the sparkle of close juxtaposition of similar sounds, without the constraints of coming up with an exact, meaningful rhyme at precisely the right moment.
The same holds true for non-rhyming lyrics. There is a freedom that comes from focusing more on the images and emotional power of a non-rhyming text:
Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag
So we bought a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies
And we walked off to look for America
(“America” – Paul Simon)
What makes a non-rhyming lyric work? Remember that good lyrics need to do certain things, all of which are still true whether the lyric rhymes or not:
- Alternate between describing people, situations and circumstances, and then the emotions involved.
- Use common, everyday words that everyone uses in conversation.
- Connect to the listeners’ emotional soul.
Without Rhyming, What Organizes a Lyric?
A rhyming lyric offers an expectation to the listener: once they’re aware of the pattern of rhyming (each pair of lines, for example), they come to expect it, and it offers a pleasant sense of resolution when they hear it… pleasant, as long as the rhyme isn’t overly forced.
In that sense, the rhyming itself offers a sense of structure to lyrics. It works like a package or vessel within which lyrics sit. As soon as that little 2-line package has happened, we’re waiting for the next one. That kind of structure is a powerful tool when used well.
If you write a lyric that doesn’t rhyme, what sets it apart from the kind of writing you might do in an essay or short story? It usually comes down to its internal rhythm.
Read through the lyric of “America” above, and you’ll see that there is a noticeable rhythm that emphasizes 3/4 time:
LET us be LOV-ers, we’ll MAR-ry our FOR-tunes to-GETH-er.
…one strong beat followed by two weaker ones. That’s its organizing feature. Even with lyrics that don’t clearly indicate a meter like “America” does, there’s usually a need for some kind of lilt or pattern, even if it’s vague, like Imogen Heap’s “Speeding Cars” (which straddles the line between general and non-rhyming):
Here’s the day you hoped would never come
Don’t feed me violence, just run with me
Through rows of speeding cars
The paper cuts, the cheating lovers
The coffee’s never strong enough
I know you think it’s more than just bad luck
As you read it (and especially if you don’t know the song), it’s fun to decide for yourself how you’d speak this text – which words get an important pulse, and which ones don’t? Now, listen to the way Imogen Heap organizes the words and rhythms.
Advice for Today’s Songwriters
Styles change all the time, but through all those changes, you’ll notice that songs in the pop genres (especially those destined to be commercial hits) tend to rely on rhyming, while songs that venture into more eclectic and experimental forms frequently use approximate or non-rhyming lyrics.
There’s no rule for what you should do in your songs, as long as you are aware of the following:
- Exact rhyming carries with it the danger of forced rhymes – where the fact that word you’ve chosen rhymes is its strongest feature.
- Good rhymes take time. So be prepared to write and rewrite – a lot – in order to get something that works really well.
- Opt for general (near) rhyming when an exact rhyme isn’t forthcoming. A near rhyme is often every bit as good as an exact one, with the added benefit of likely being closer to what you really want to say.
- No one notices non-rhyming lyrics until they think about it. In other words, as long as your lyric offers a sense of internal pulse and rhythm, no one is going to notice that it isn’t rhyming. And even if and when they eventually notice that, they won’t usually care.
Whether you rhyme or not, always remember that your words need to touch the heart of the listener. They are chiefly responsible for making your audience feel something. When all is said and done, that puts rhyming far down on the list of important things your lyric needs to do.
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