Songwriter - lyrics

Forced Rhymes: the Ever-Present Danger of Rhyming Dictionaries

Apparently Bruce Springsteen used a rhyming dictionary to come up with the lyrics to “Blinded By the Light.” That cleared up a long-held puzzlement for me: I was finding it hard to understand how in the world his musical mind was coming up with those lyrical images:

Madman drummers bummers and indians in the summer
with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps
his way into his hat

Rhyming dictionaries are easy to find on the web (RhymeZone is a popular one). Most songwriters use them, and for good reason — when you can speed up the process of finding rhymes, you’ll find that your songwriting process also speeds up, and that’s a good thing.

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But there is an ever-present danger that comes along with the use of rhyming dictionaries, and it’s this: you can come perilously close to creating corny lyrics with what will come across to your audience as massively forced rhymes.

I’ve always loved the lyrics to “Blinded By the Light”, because the alliteration and rhythmic dancing that comes from those verse lyrics add a kind of mood that I think Springsteen was looking for.

But most of the time if you try to create the majority of your song’s lyric by using a rhyming dictionary, you’ll see more detriment than benefit. Mainly, rhyming dictionaries put all the possible word choices right there in front of you, and you start picking words like you’d pick candies from a tray. And that’s where forced rhyming becomes a problem.

A forced rhyme means that rhyming takes precedence over meaning. If you have an antecedent phrase of “It makes me think, it makes me wonder…” — and you come up with “She wanted a coffee but I couldn’t fund her…” as an answering phrase — you’ve crossed that line with lights blazing!

I’m definitely in favour of using a rhyming dictionary to help you through some tricky spots, but can I suggest a better way to write lyrics that are hard to come up with:

  1. Write a short story as a preliminary step. It doesn’t need to be long — perhaps a few paragraphs — and get it down on paper exactly what you’re writing about.
  2. Come up with word lists. Create words and groups of words that all point to your song’s topic. If your overall topic is, let’s say, leaving home to start a new life on your own, your list will include words like “leaving”, “alone”, “drive”, “setting out”, “finding my own way”… that sort of thing.
  3. Go through your list, and find words that you think will be more important than others in your song’s lyric. If you already think that “finding my own way” is going to figure prominently in your lyric, try to find words and phrases that rhyme. Try to do this without a rhyming dictionary at first. (“Just want to say”, “it’s a new day”, “my own bills to pay”, etc.

And if you find that you’re drawing a blank, consult a rhyming dictionary, but with this caveat: try to find words that are in common usage. In the example of “It makes me think, it makes me wonder…”, it might be better to try to use the word “under” rather than “fund her”, only because of the rarity of “fund her” in our typical language use.

Creating word lists, and then creating your own rhymes before consulting a dictionary, offers the benefit of words that sound like you created them. Because of course, you did.

A rhyming dictionary is a great tool. But use it carefully, and only when you really need it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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