Do Song Lyrics Have to Rhyme?
As a songwriter, you might be wondering whether your song lyrics have to rhyme. The short answer is no, they don’t, it’s up to you how you write your songs.
However, having said that you need to keep in mind the people who will be listening to your song. Who are they, and what impact do you want your song to have?
If you are writing a straight-up pop song, your listeners will be expecting your lyrics to rhyme. So, in that case, maybe you need to write a song with lyrics that rhyme.
If you are writing something a little less conventional it might be okay for your lyrics not to rhyme.
However, you may need to find another way (as an alternative to rhymes) to help the listener find their way through your song.
Rhyming does some important jobs in song lyrics, and we’re going to explore a few of these here.
Why Use Rhymes In Your Lyrics?
A rhyme can be defined as the repetition of similar sounds at the end of words, usually used in the final position of lines in poems or songs.
Rhyming seems to have been used for thousands of years, probably for the same purposes as it’s used nowadays. For example, rhyming can make a song feel more cohesive and memorable.
The repeated sound patters in rhymes help the listener to understand the structure of a song, and remember it more easily since rhymes act as memory prompts. Think of the times you have been learning a new song, and how the rhymes helped you remember the next part.
Rhymes can also add interest and humor to a song. Country music has numerous examples of the use of rhyme to provide a sense of fun and playfulness.
It’s important to remember that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to songwriting. Your lyrics should ultimately serve the song and help you convey the message or emotion you’re trying to express.
A lot of the advice around the use of rhymes in song lyrics is based on what has been done previously (usually in successful songs), and the ways you can use the information in your own songs.
The best resource on rhyming that I have found is Pat Pattison’s Essential Guide to Rhyming, which is definitely worth checking out.
Something you may have heard about song lyric rhyming is the use of rhyme schemes. These are not intended to be rules but guidelines to help you to use rhyme effectively.
Rhyme schemes help the listener to find their way through the song.
When someone hears a song that uses rhyme, they pick up on the rhyme scheme very quickly and they expect the same scheme to be used consistently throughout the song.
If you do something unusual, or change the rhyme scheme in different verses, for example, you may lose the listener.
In less conventional music this may be fine, but for the average pop music listener (by this I mean popular rather than a particular style of music) this probably won’t be a good experience.
Pick a Rhyme Scheme
So, it’s probably best to pick a traditional rhyme scheme and stick to it. You can (and probably should) use different rhyme schemes in different song sections, like verses and chorus, to make the distinction clear. But stick to the same scheme in each song section, e.g. verses and chorus.
A rhyme scheme is the pattern of the rhymes at the end of each line of a song. The rhymes are usually indicated by letters, e.g. A, B, C, etc.
So AABB would have the first two lines rhyming with each other, and the third and fourth lines rhyming with each other.
I am so in love with you - A There's really nothing I can do - A I see you with that other guy - B Could I please have another try? - B
So, that lyric won’t win any awards but it illustrates the idea.
The rhyme scheme lets the listener know that this idea is complete and we will be moving on to the next one.
The rhymes also give the listener a clue about where the story is going. When you hear the first two lines rhyme, you realise the next two probably will as well.
So what rhymes with guy? Does the singer start to cry, or want to die, or know that it really was goodbye?
This is one of the problems with rhymes in lyrics.
We have heard so many rhymes that anything too obvious turns the listener off. It’s important to put some thought into the rhymes you use and try to find something a bit less predictable.
Just for information, here are some other commonly used rhyme schemes:
ABAB, ABCB (A and C don’t rhyme), ABBA, AABBA, and so on.
Quite often, you don’t know which rhyme scheme will be used until you start writing. The rhyme placement usually emerges as you start to write your song.
You should try to avoid letting the rhymes lead your writing too much. You have probably heard songs with some quite bad lines in them, and it may be that the line was written based on the rhyme at the end.
Types of Rhymes
There are various options for rhyme placement, although you normally find rhyming words at the ends of lyric lines.
You can also have words in the middle of a line that rhyme with words in another line. These are called internal rhymes.
The way that the words rhyme can vary, going from perfect rhymes to words that just sound similar in some way.
The overall lyrical effect would go from rhymes providing a strong impact to rhymes that you may hardly notice at all.
Perfect and Imperfect Rhymes
The rhymes in my example lyric above used perfect rhymes.
Perfect rhymes have the same vowel sound (a, e, i, o, u) but with a different consonant sound before it. Sometimes there is a consonant sound (or consonants) after the vowel sound too, and these should be the same
For example, You + Do, Guy + Try, Moon + June, Start + Heart.
You have to be careful with perfect rhymes because people have heard a lot of them before in other songs. It can be hard to find new perfect rhymes, or at least interesting ways to use the well-known ones.
Rhymes that aren’t perfect in this way can be called imperfect rhymes, and there are various types.
It’s important to note that perfect and imperfect just refer to the type of rhyme here. A perfect rhyme may be far from perfect in your song if it sounds unoriginal and cliched, whereas an imperfect rhyme may be perfect for your song.
Types of Imperfect Rhyme
The various types of imperfect rhyme are sometimes called by different names, but below are some of the ways they are commonly identified.
Family Rhymes have the same vowel sounds, with a different consonant sound coming before it, just like perfect rhymes. The difference here is that the consonant sound coming after the vowel is also different.
For example, Black + Flat, Time + Line, Tough + Crush, Street + Weep.
The reason these are called family rhymes is because the consonants after the vowel belong to the same consonant family. It’s the similarity of the family consonant sounds that makes these rhymes work.
The consonant families can be broken down into smaller groups, depending on the type of sound (plosives, fricatives and nasals) and whether your vocal cords are involved with making the sound (voiced) or not (unvoiced).
The main consonant family sounds are plosives, voiced (b, d, g) and unvoiced (p, t, k); fricatives, voiced (v, th (as in the), z, zh, j) and unvoiced (f, th (as in thin), s, sh, ch); and nasals (m, n, ng).
Additive and Subtractive Rhymes
Additive and Subtractive Rhymes have the same vowel sounds, with a different consonant sound coming before it, just like perfect rhymes.
The difference here is that one of the words in the rhyming pair has an extra consonant sound after the vowel. This extra consonant could come directly after the vowel, or after a consonant that’s already there (examples below).
If it’s the second word that has the extra consonant sound it’s an additive rhyme (because it has more). If it’s the first word that has the extra consonant it’s a subtractive rhyme (because it has less).
Examples of additive rhymes: Try + Cried, Hay + Crate, See + Meet.
The extra consonant sound can also come after another consonant Brass + Fast, Laugh + Craft, Dream + Seems.
Subtractive rhymes are really additive rhymes in reverse, but here are some examples: Hear + Be, Tries + Fly, Best + Mess (removing a consonant sound after another consonant).
Assonance rhymes have the same vowel sound, but the consonants coming before and after the vowel are not related. This means the consonant sounds aren’t part of the sound families outlined above.
Examples of assonance rhymes: Mine + Pike, Wrong + Hot, Treat + Mean.
Consonance rhymes have different vowel sounds, but the consonant sounds are are the same. With this type of rhyme the consonant sounds have to be very close otherwise you might not notice the rhyme at all.
Examples of consonance rhymes: Time + Roam, Back + Kick, Run + Bin.
The use of matching consonant sounds in this type of rhyme is similar the use of consonants in alliteration.
Alliteration is where the same consonant sound is used repeatedly. For example, the old tongue-twister, Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper, which repeats P and K sounds.
Masculine vs Feminine Rhymes
One more thing relating to rhyming is whether the rhymes are masculine or feminine.
I think I have only seen this talked about in one book, The Modern Rhyming Dictionary by Gene Lees.
The rhymes in this rhyming dictionary are a little dated, but it’s still my favorite. I believe this book is out of print, but used copies may be available.
Masculine rhymes are where the rhymes are between the final stressed syllables in the words.
For example, Dog + Log, Generate + Operate, Afternoon + Honeymoon.
Feminine rhymes are where the rhymes are between stressed syllables that are followed by one or more unstressed syllables.
For example: Racing + Chasing, Dedicated + Nominated, Housekeeping + Oversleeping.
Using Rhymes in Song Lyrics
So what’s the point of looking at all these different types of rhyme?
Well, for one thing, knowing the types of rhyme available gives you more options in your lyric writing.
Rather than using the same old rhymes that send the listener to sleep, why not try something a little bit different that will generate interest in your song.
Once you have a line written, and you are looking for where to go next, look more widely at what’s available.
For example, if your lyric line is:
We met at nine on the hottest night in June
Rather than think about things relating to the Moon (perfect rhyme), how about…
And I thought you were the coolest guy in the room (family rhyme), or…
And I just knew that I needed to cut loose (assonance rhyme), and so on…
If your lyric is telling a story, the use of different types of rhyme gives you much more flexibility in the way you develop it.
The rhymes are still doing their main jobs of making the song more cohesive and memorable, but now they can be much more interesting.
Rhymes and Lyrical Movement
Another way to use different types of rhyme is to either keep the song moving, or to bring sections and ideas to a close.
Pat Pattison talks about this in his books, and compares the types of rhyme used in song lyrics to the chords used for the song’s harmony and melody.
Some chords make you feel like you have arrived, whereas other chords make you feel like you are in the middle of a section that’s still moving.
This relates to rhymes where perfect rhymes make you feel like you have arrived, providing a sense of resolution, and imperfect rhymes make you feel like you are still in the middle of a section.
This is another way that you can use the different rhyme types in your song lyrics.
For lines at the start or in the middle of your verses, chorus or bridge you could focus on imperfect rhymes to keep things moving.
For lines at the end of these sections you could use perfect rhymes to bring things to a close. You could also repeat lines, parts of lines or words from these final lines to emphasise this.
A strong (probably perfect) rhyme can also help to highlight ideas within your lyric. This use of rhymes can help the listener understand your lyrics more easily, which can be important for getting them interested in your song.
For more information on songwriting, you might be interested in our article on songwriting tips for beginners.
So, Do Song Lyrics Have to Rhyme?
There are a number of reasons why rhyming can be really helpful in song lyrics.
Rhymes can help the lyrics to feel like part of a whole, and make the lyrics more understandable and memorable for your audience.
Whether your song lyrics have to rhyme or not depends on a lot of things, but probably audience expectation is the biggest one.
You could write a country song with lyrics that don’t rhyme, and you would probably find that your song has a limited audience. But you never know – a great song is a great song!
In more experimental styles of music you might find that lyrics without traditional rhymes work really well. The audience is probably expecting something like that.
Ultimately, the most important thing is to write lyrics that are authentic and meaningful to you.
I have heard a lot of successful songwriters talk about the secrets of their success. A number of them say that they only became successful when they stopped worrying about what other people might like, and started to write what they wanted to hear.
So maybe, whether your lyrics rhyme or not, if they come from the heart, they have a good chance of impacting your audience.