Songwriting—The Importance of Rhyming Words
I was listening to my ipod over the weekend, while driving to a gig, and I heard two songs in the same drive that brought a point that had never before occurred to me into stark relief. [Note: what follows is a somewhat esoteric discussion about an intricacy of songwriting. It’s probably of interest only to those who write songs.] That point was this: I may be focusing too much lyrical attention on my rhyming words. And by ‘I’ I mean ‘I, and everyone I write with’. This is quite the lengthy list.
Let me explain: when I get together with people to write lyrics, we typically (inasmuch as there is any ‘typical’ when it comes to something as free-flowing as writing songs) spend a good deal of time writing the song lyrics, line by line. We generally have a message we want to get across, obviously, and each verse needs to take us to the chorus. The chorus needs to put the cherry on top of the point the verse just set up. That’s the quick and dirty explanation (keeping in mind that every song and every writer is different, and that half the reason to learn these guidelines is so that you can find interesting ways to flaunt them in order to highlight your song’s message).
Now, it seems to me that we spend, say, 30% of our lyric-writing time on just the words at the end of each line. The rhyming words. Those are the hard ones, after all. The words that don’t have to rhyme can say whatever you want them to say. You write them just like I’m writing this blog—however you want to. Obviously you want them to sing well, and they need to conform to a melody that has a specific number of syllables. And sometimes one of the writers (me, usually) will get a little compulsive about not putting boring words (like conjunctions) in power positions melodically. But there’s a good amount of wiggle room in writing all the lyrics except for the last word in each line.
The reason that you want to take the extra time on the rhyming words is because it’s imperative that your rhymes not be banal, predictable, and/or trite. It’s the sign of a lazy writer when you hear a song for the first time and can predict the rhymes the entire way through. Day/way/say, you/too/true, see/me/free, and so on. There are hundreds of perfect, single-syllable rhymes like that that we’re all very familiar with. Since we don’t want to be cheesy and predictable, we spend a lot of time carefully crafting our lyrics so that they say what we want but find interesting ways to rhyme, with well-chosen words and good imagery. Except I think we’re wrong.
I was shocked when I had that thought. It challenged a writing convention that had never before been challenged. I’ve taken it as a given since I started writing songs that predictable rhymes were to be avoided. You don’t want that nursery rhyme feel to any of your songs. You don’t want to write a song like Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham. You just don’t. Yet, here were two songs that proved that convention completely wrong. Let’s take a look. The first song is I Believe, performed by Blessid Union of Souls (and written by their vocalist, Eliot Sloan [youtube linky]). The lyrics I’m talking about is the second couplet in the 2nd verse:
“Violence is spread worldwide and there are families on the street
And we sell drugs to children now oh why can’t we just see
That all we do is eliminate our future with the things we do today
Money is our incentive now so that makes it okay”
‘Today’ and ‘ok’—you can’t come up with rhyming words that are more perfect or predictable than those, and yet the lyrics around them are so good that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. The sentiment in that couplet is fricking brilliant (perhaps slightly less so without the first couplet setting it up, but still). It says exactly what the writer wants to say, and that makes it ok. Fine, I just wanted the rhyme in that last sentence.
Here’s the other song, I’m Alright, performed by Jo Dee Messina (written by Nashville writer/artist Phil Vassar [youtube linky]). The part in particular that struck me was this quartet in the second half of the first verse:
“Been singin’ for my rent and singin’ for my supper
I’m above the below and below the upper
I’m stuck in the middle where money gets tight
But I guess I’m doin’ alright”
This quartet has two sets of perfect, predictable rhymes. Supper/upper and tight/alright are obviously about as perfect as you can get, yet again we can see that it doesn’t detract from the message at all. In fact, I’ve heard both of these songs probably upwards of 50 times, and not only did I never notice until a few days ago, they were some of my favorite lyrics! And, while I quoted you just a small piece of each song, you can go look at the lyrics—you’ll find that the same rule-breaking rhymes hold true throughout. Great lyrics strung together with totally predictable rhyming words. So, since it’s clearly possible to write great lyrics with simple rhymes, why kill yourself to try and come up with interesting and unexpected rhymes? Don’t get me wrong, I could give examples of songs like that, too. That isn’t the point, though. The point is that I need to start sending the internal editor on coffee break and start writing great lines that end with whatever the hell rhymes I want them to.
And so do you.