Why songs rhyme and how your audience experiences the rhymes you write.
“Why do songs rhyme?” sounds like an easy question to answer until you actually have to explain it to someone…
In this article, you’ll learn why rhyme is so powerful in song lyrics, then how your listeners interact with the rhymes you choose and the effect of rhyme on their listening experience.
There Are Two Main Functions of Rhyme in Song:
1. Rhyme helps the performer and the audience remember the song lyrics, and
2. Rhymes create song structure through patterns that help your audience understand the song and the song structure.
Below the video lesson is a summary of the discussion, with bonus ideas and links to other songwriting resources to help you improve your songwriting rhyming skills!
Rhyme Helps You Remember
Rhyme makes it easier for a performer or listener to remember song lyrics. The similar sound of two (or more) rhyme words makes a memorable connection or association in your mind.
For example, imagine you’re performing a song with a section with an AABB rhyme scheme. As you sing the last word of the first line (the first A) the sound of that word triggers you to remember the last word on the next line (the second A). Knowing your goal helps you remember all the lyrics leading up to it.
In the Celtic tradition, bards remembered hundreds of lines of lyrics to poems and songs, in part because of rhyme.
Rhyme is an important factor in memorizing, along with the sounds of the lyrics and the meaning of the lyrics (the story in the song). Musical elements such as the melody and the chord progressions also help you.
Rhyme Creates Structure in Songs
Rhymes act as punctuation, turning a bunch of ideas into the song equivalent of lines and song sections. Rhyme gives you a cue that you’ve heard a complete thought. The lines are connected because of the sound association of the rhyme, so they should also be connected in their meaning.
Recognizing and Predicting Rhyme Patterns
Have you ever heard a rhyme word coming? You’re listening to a new song and feel that a rhyme is about to happen? You’re wondering what the word will be… there are only a few possibilities because it has to rhyme with a word you’ve just heard and make sense with the line you’re hearing right now. You’re wondering exactly when the rhyme word will happen… probably at the end of the line, probably on the same beat as the last rhyme.
As a listener, you hear the last word of a line and realize that the end word will (probably) rhyme with another word. You try to predict when and where the rhyme will be completed. You get a little rush in your mental pleasure centres as the rhyme is completed and you find out if your prediction was right.
A more sophisticated listener is conscious and actively predicting your rhyme choices. A naive audience still tries to predict rhymes and other patterns but they may not be conscious they are doing it.
Experiencing a Song Section
Imagine you’re listening to a new song, you hear the last word of a line. Although you might not consciously think about it, this is the first (possible) rhyme word in the section so A is a convenient label.
At the end of the next line, the rhyme is completed… so far you’ve heard two rhyming lines: AA
The third line is a different sounding word, so you’re wondering which word the last line will rhyme with… will this be AABB or AAXA?
You’re still guessing until you hear the last word.
This is how your listeners experience the rhymes you write.
In a different song, you hear two lines that don’t rhyme… AB.
As you wait for the end of the next line, you wonder which word it will rhyme with and which rhyme word it’ll be.
On some level (consciously or subconsciously) listeners are thinking during a song. They’re trying to figure out what’s happening and predicting where the story is going. For patterns, such as rhyme patterns, some of the internal dialogue includes:
- I know there’s a pattern, there are always patterns in songs!
- Which pattern is it?
- What’s coming? How will the pattern be solved?
- Which words will complete the rhyme pattern?
- When will a word complete the rhyme?
Predictability and Surprise
Listeners want to predict the patterns they notice. If your song is too predictable, it’s boring. So you need to surprise your audience… but too much surprise obscurs the patterns turning music into noise. The music doesn’t make any sense.
If your rhymes are always completed when your audience expects them, or with the rhyme choices they expect… there’s no surprise, it’s too easy. Sometimes easy is okay… just like junk food, a little is okay but you can’t be healthy if that’s all you consume.
When you’re writing, find a balance between predictability and surprise.
Using Rhyme in Your Songs
Keep surprise alive… don’t be too predictable, it will quickly bore your audience. Strike a balance so you create enough surprise that your songs are interesting without being impossible to predict or understand.
Use variety in your rhyme choices, the words you pick to rhyme. My personal goal is to brainstorm at least 5 rhyme alternatives for every rhyme I use in a song.
Use a variety of rhyme schemes… I use at least two different rhyme schemes in every song.
don’t choose the obvious rhyme choices.