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So you're writing a song about heartbreak and you're trying to find a word that rhymes with "love." The obvious choices are absolutely nausea-inducing: "dove" or "glove." Not only do those two words sound painfully cheesy, in no way do either of those fit into the picture of heartbreak.
So how do you find words that both rhyme and help tell your story?
In this article, we'll explore the different types of rhymes that you can use in your songwriting. Each one of them can open up the doors to countless possibilities in your lyrics.
The main difference between prose and song lyrics is that lyrics have a rhythm to the lines and usually include rhymes. So why do we use rhymes in songs? Rhymes help emphasize the rhythm of your lyrics. They let us achieve a sense of tension that moves into resolution. Once you establish a rhyme scheme, your listeners will come to expect those rhyming patterns to continue, and when they do, they will give your audience that sense of "Ah, I felt it was coming. Glad it resolved!"
Just like rhythms and harmonies help paint a picture, so do your lyrics. Rhymes are yet another tool in your songwriting toolbox that you should use to help tell your stories.
If you've been fearing the dreaded cliché nursery-style rhymes, I'm happy to tell you that there are a total of five different types of rhymes you can use in your songwriting. Each one of them lands differently when sung.
Consider this: the stronger the rhyming connection between two words, the more stable and resolved the rhyme will feel. The weaker the rhyming connection, the more unstable and unresolved it will feel. So you can use different types of rhymes to convey different emotions.
First off, the significant thing to note is that, unlike poetry, lyrics are meant to be sung. So lyrical rhyming rules are slightly different from poetic rhyming. As such, always try to sing the words to see how they work together.
Secondly, when working with rhymes, what you're trying to rhyme is the accented syllables.
Let's take the word "together," as an example. The accent in "together" lands on the syllable "geth." Meaning, you should be searching for words whose accented syllable rhymes with "geth." Words like "tougher" or "certain" would not be rhymes as they are rhyming with the weak syllables "to-" and "-er." Whereas "feather," "leather," and "weather" would be correct rhymes since they rhyme with the accented syllable in "together."
So without further ado, let's dive right into the five different types of rhymes that you can use in your songs.
This one is probably the most common rhyme type that you've encountered till now. And one of the reasons for that is because they have the strongest connection between the two words. Examples of perfect rhymes would be:
If this is all you've been exposed to, you'd probably be the first to say that rhymes are cheesy and that we shouldn't use rhymes in songs. But there's a reason why these rhymes sound cheesy to us. It's because we've heard them used in every single nursery rhyme since kindergarten. Consider this one:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a tiger by the ___.
Notice how without me including that last word, you still knew that the word was going to be "toe." The expectation that was set was so strong that the resolution was beyond obvious.
The beauty of perfect rhymes lies in their strength. These rhymes have the strongest connection between the words as they share the most of their individual elements—Perfect rhymes have three characteristics:
That third characteristic is what distinguishes a rhyme from a repetition.
So how do you find rhymes? You could crack open a physical rhyming dictionary or you could search in one of the many online rhyming dictionaries like rhymezone.com. Most rhyming dictionaries online allow you to type in a word of your choice and they'll give you dozens of words that rhyme with your search term. In almost every case the results will be perfect rhymes. So let's go ahead and search for words that rhyme with "free." You'll see that this will give you 1523 results. Aside from the obvious ones like "me," "be," and "we" (which may end up sounding cheesy), you'll also find hundreds of words that not only have a perfect rhyme but actually help add to the imagery of your song's lyric. As an example, if you're writing a song about slaves trying to escape from captivity, the following words may be great ones to include in your song:
Needless to say, some really interesting imagery opportunities popped up just from that search. Online rhyming dictionaries make it really easy to find perfect rhymes for almost any word you need.
To recap, perfect rhymes create the strongest connection between two words, and thus give the listener the biggest sense of resolve.
So far we've explored perfect rhymes, in which both the vowel sound of the accented word and the following consonants match identically.
Family rhymes have three characteristics:
So what exactly are these "families"? There are three families of consonant sounds:
When creating family rhymes, what you can do is substitute the ending consonant sound with any of the other consonant sounds from the same family. Meaning the d in "had" could be replaced with any of the other plosives (b, g, p, t, k) to create "bat," "rack," and "lab." Same as "crass" could become "laugh" or "tram" could become "ran." As long as you're staying in the same "family" of consonants you're creating what's called a family rhyme. This is the second strongest rhyme type that you can create.
Family rhymes can be found all over the place in Pharrell Williams' "Happy." See if you can pinpoint them in the chorus and verses!
So how do you go about searching for family rhymes in a rhyming dictionary? Searching for words that rhyme with "believe," would only give you perfect rhymes like "eve," "leave," sleeve, and "thieve." What you need to do is first create one family rhyme on your own and then search for rhymes with that word. So in the case of "believe," I could replace the v sound with an f and create the word "belief." Searching for words that rhyme with "belief" would give me dozens of matches, like "brief," "leaf," "grief," or "relief." Alternately replacing the v with a z could let me create the family rhyme "Belize." Although that specific word might not come in too handy in a song (unless I'm writing a song about partying it up on a cruise), searching for rhymes with that word would give me hundreds of additional options like "breeze," "ease," "keys," "disease" or "guarantees" among others. That family has 11 sounds that belong to it and I've only explored 3 so far. Just those three gave me close to 1000 words that were family rhymes with "believe." Imagine all the possibilities that lie in the other 8?
Needless to say, the opportunities for finding really clever rhymes becomes significantly higher when you incorporate family rhymes in your searches. Family rhymes can give you some truly beautiful imagery that matches your tone yet still has a strong enough sense of belonging rhyme-wise to create the effect of expectation-resolution.
Next in order of strength would be Additive and Subtractive rhymes. The three principles of these rhymes are:
The second part is the important piece here. So how does that work in practice? Let's say you have the word "feel." To create an additive rhyme we could add an s to the end and find words that rhyme with "feels" (like "steals" or "wheels"). Or we could take it further and add additional non-stressed syllables to the end of the original word and thus look for words that rhyme with "feeling" (like "bleeding" or "healing"). (Always keep in mind the accented syllable that you're rhyming with).
How do subtractive rhymes work? It's really a matter of reversing the process. So if you started with "believers" you can subtract the -ers and look for rhymes with "believe" to get "deceive" or "(new years) eve."
This group opens up additional possibilities. These rhymes have three characteristics:
Remember how when creating family rhymes you were swapping consonant sounds for other sounds from the same family? Well, when creating assonance rhymes you're doing the same, but this time swapping the consonant sound for sounds from a different family. Meaning the plosive d in "had" could be replaced with any of the fricatives (v, TH, z, zh, j, f, th, s, ss, sh, ch) or nasals (m, n, ng) to create "jazz," "glass," and "half," "damn."
A great example of an assonance rhyme in use in a pop song is in the pre-chorus of Katy Perry's "Firework."
Notice how the t (part of the plosives family) was swapped for an n (nasals family) to create an assonance rhyme between "light" and "shine." If you just say these two words, it doesn't sound like they would rhyme, but now sing them. Listen to the pre-chorus of Katy's song and you'll hear how the fact that the vowels are longer makes the words sound like they rhyme.
Assonance rhymes don't create as strong a connection as what you would get with a perfect rhyme, but they open up the possibilities for creating thousands of additional word rhymes, so if the previous categories didn't yield satisfying results, this one surely will.
This brings us to our last contestant - the consonance rhyme. This is going to be the weakest rhyme connection you can create between two words. The reason for this is because the words have very little in common. These rhymes have these three characteristics:
Examples would be "bike" and "lake," "fun" and "on," or "this" and "pass." As you can see, the only elements that these word pairs match on are the ending consonant sounds. Since the vowel sound is different, the connection between these two words will be very weak, thus the sense of resolution will feel equally unresolved.
Having said that, sometimes this is exactly what you need for the story you're telling. If your story is "unstable," talks about a true heartbreak, and requires that sense of being unresolved, then you may find that consonance rhymes will help you convey just that emotion.
A great examples of consonance rhyme is the opening of "What Sarah Said" by Death Cab For Cutie.
You now have so many possibilities when it comes to the word choices that you can use in your songs. Mix and match them as needed to convey different emotions.
Using different rhyme types will help you make sure that your rhymes aren't as predictable and cliché, but also open up the doors to a world of storytelling that really brings your audience in closer to the story you're trying to tell through your songs.
I have to give a special shout-out to the best lyric teacher I know: Pat Pattison. This incredible genius taught me everything I know about lyrics and has opened my mind to how one word can change how the whole song feels. He's seriously unlocked the lyric floodgates for me. If you're interested in learning more about the world of lyric writing, I highly recommend you check out his online courses, attend one of his master classes, and get his Writing Better Lyrics book.
For more info: https://www.patpattison.com