What’s in a Rhyme?

December 30, 2006

Beautiful sentiments can be expressed and beautiful songs can be written without the use of rhyme. But for me, if a lyric doesn’t have rhyme, it just doesn’t satisfy. I don’t know why a rhymed word will heighten the impact of a line but I became interested in taking a look at the use of rhyme by some classic singer/songwriters.

The most common type of rhyme is the “tail” or “terminal” rhyme. That’s when the rhymes fall in the very last syllable of the lines. This is the rhyme of nursery rhymes, the one you usually think of when you think of rhymes:

Hickory, dickory dock
The mouse ran up the clock


Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes

Bob Dylan used a lot of tail rhymes in “Like a Rolling Stone”:

You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes

The rhymes above are “perfect” tail rhymes in that the final syllable of each line rhymes exactly. But some of the tail rhymes in “Like a Rolling Stone” rely on the fact that your ear will hear a rhyme if a strong enough vowel sound is repeated as in these lines:

To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

“Own” and “home” aren’t perfect rhymes but they share the same long “o” sound and it’s close enough for us to accept it as a rhyme and to have virtually the same impact as a perfect rhyme within the song.

Personally, I think Dylan got undue credit for mystic symbolism in some of his lyrics. It seems more likely that he was irresistibly drawn to cool rhymes of intriguing images. For example, I don’t think there is any great meaning to be uncovered in the much-discussed “Siamese cat” couplet:

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat

In a cursory web search, I discovered an entire book written about this song and also four different interpretations for the identity of the diplomat on the chrome horse: John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Napoleon, and Dylan himself. (OK, so, actually, the Andy Warhol/Edie Sedgwick theory is pretty seductive. But I’m standing by my theory: Dylan was painting an interesting picture with rhymes, not telling a story or pointing a finger in cryptic images.)

I’m especially enamored of “internal” rhymes. That’s when the rhymed syllables don’t fall at the end of the lines. Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” is full of internal rhymes. In these, he rhymes two words, internally, within each of the lines:

He grabbed his pants a better stance, oh he jumped so high, he clicked his heels

He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and he traveled about

He said I dance now at every chance in honky-tonks for drinks and tips

Some songwriters develop complicated rhyming schemes that they meticulously follow throughout an entire song. I once read an interview with Townes Van Zandt in which he talked about the complexity of his rhyme pattern in “For the Sake of the Song”. And it’s a doozie! In the first four lines of every verse, he uses two internal rhymes per line and a terminal rhyme. He also uses lots of patterned alliteration (repeating initial consonant sounds), especially S’s as in the title line, “Maybe she just has to sing for the sake of the song”:

Why does she sing her sad songs for me, I’m not the one
To tenderly bring her soft sympathy, I’ve just begun
To see my way clear and it’s plain if I stop I will fall
I can lay down a tear for her pain, just a tear and that’s all

And then, in the next two lines of the verses, he rhymes all four of the internal rhymes and still keeps the tail rhyme alive as well:

Does she really believe that some word of mine could relieve all of her pain
Can’t she see that she grieves just because she’s been blindly deceived by her shame

Um-mm, a perfectly conceived rhyme template is a thing of beauty! The anticipation and resolution of the rhymes is part of the aural aesthetics ~ rather like the repetition in a bird song ~ augmenting the pleasure and impact of the work as a whole.

Kelley Martin
December 2006


Tail (Terminal) Rhymes are underlined in BOLD ORANGE
Internal Rhymes are underlined in BOLD GREEN
Alliteration is underlined in BOLD PURPLE


Wikipedia entry for “Rhymes”

Lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”

Lyrics to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”

Lyrics to Townes Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of the Song”

What Jimmy Webb Says

October 23, 2006

I love reading about songs and songwriting almost as much as I love listening. I just finished Jimmy Webb’s book Tunesmith ~ Inside the Art of Songwriting and I highly recommend it! It’s a great read both for its insight into Webb’s songwriting techniques and for the fascinating behind-the-scenes stories about the music industry.

Tunesmith was written in 1998 and Webb may have a whole new philosophy about the craft of songwriting these days. But the thing that struck me most was the whole array of rules and procedures that he practiced and prescribed for writing a good song. I know it’s just plain wrong to question the tactics of the man who wrote “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, “MacArthur Park”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, etc., etc.*, but I was pretty surprised by the highly formulaic approach to his art. Is it common for songwriters to compose this way? Writing down every possible chord for every beat of a melody line and then substituting notes in that chord, one by one, to get each chord of the song? I mean, I love the work of dozens of talented contemporary songwriters that I’m fairly sure would have been kicked out of the Jimmy Webb School of Songwriting.

He’s tough on lyrics that use imperfect rhymes (like “smile/wild” or “again/friend”) arguing that “the listener will be offended on a subliminal level even if he or she doesn’t know the difference between a false and proper rhyme.” (p. 58) I think an imperfect rhyme can be refreshing as it opens up more vocabulary choices and so can surprise you lyrically. Also, nowadays, too many perfect rhymes in a song can sometimes sound a little old-fashioned. He banters on the “dangers of enjambment… the unethical practice of carrying over the meaning of a sentence from the end of one couplet to another.” (p. 98) I didn’t know what it was called, but it turns out I’m a big fan of enjambment. I love it when a smart lyric line carries through into the next line while keeping the rhymes at the end of the measures. When building chords, he adheres to Bach’s 17th century dictum: “The third should never be doubled.” (p. 222) I took this rule to the piano and picked out a few songs playing block chords in different inversions. Sometimes it did sound better without the doubled third notes. Sometimes I just couldn’t hear what the big deal was.

If your life hasn’t been diminished by not knowing the definition of “anapestic metric foot” (p. 87), then you might skip over Chapter 4. If you wouldn’t know a major seventh chord if it walked up and introduced itself, you will definitely want to flip a little faster through those chapters discussing the aforementioned chord building exercises (I know I did). But take your time enjoying the handsomely written philosophical discussions on songwriting and the analyses of famous songs by other writers. Allow yourself to be amazed as Webb literally walks you step-by-step through the composition of an actual song, “Problem Child”. (Chap. 5 and 8 )

Although startled by the strict methodology, a lot of his practical advice seemed truly sensible, such as his recommendation to songwriters to use a thesaurus and a rhyming dictionary: “Virtually all of the great songwriters I know keep a rhyming dictionary and a thesaurus close by.” (p. 5) But my favorite quote is this one in which he beautifully delineates his criteria for bending the rules:

When we break the rules it is essential to weigh the risk… Like the architect we may come to the conclusion that we will have to bend the code to create a free-standing arched dome fifteen hundred feet in diameter. Can we make it stand? Can we make it beautiful?

Kelley Martin
October 2006

*You’ll find a list of 331 of Jimmy Webb’s songs at www.ascap.com and another 60 or so in the www.bmi.com catalog. A successful, prolific, and talented guy! ~KyM

Webb, Jimmy. Tunesmith : Inside the Art of Songwriting. New York: Hyperion, 1998.



Limp Lyrics

November 20, 2005

A startling number of talented up-and-coming singer/songwriters with beautiful voices, charming stage presence, lovely melodies, and impressive instrument skills seem to struggle to put together a fresh or meaningful song lyric. Walking the tightrope between extraordinarily cautious and extraordinarily cool, a songwriter who is more confident of his musical abilities than his language skills can land smack into the safety net of boring. As songwriter Todd Rundgren once said, “They’ll get lyrics that rhyme and don’t seem too stupid and that’ll be good enough.”

A song by definition has a lyric. If the song is the platform you’ve chosen as your art form, it just makes good sense to use it to convey a message, to make your listeners laugh, or to move them in some way. Why not re-phrase that cliché in a more engaging way? Why not be a little stricter about finding some gorgeous rhymes and then sprinkle them in unconventional places in the song?

The great songwriters find different ways to say the mundane. Their song lines don’t act as filler, there are no wasted words, lost opportunities, or just plain limp lyrics. A lyricist who works at his craft doesn’t settle for an old stand-by like “I was walking down the street”. How much more interesting was Paul Simon’s opener, “Kickin’ down the cobblestones”. Using two fewer words even, Simon paints a textured image of a cobblestone street and mimics the lyrical percussion of heels on pavement with the clickety-click of the repeating ‘k’ sounds. When Ellis Paul walked down a street (lyrically), he wrote, “Stumbling on the sidewalk” where he also uses repeated consonant sounds, the s’s in his lyric, to give the listener an entirely different sense of how his fella is making his way down the street. In place of the mundane “there were no clouds in the sky” or “by the light of the moon”, listen to the almost startling punch of the Leonard Cohen line, “The moon was shining naked”. Instead of “I drove my car”, Don McLean made songwriter history with “Drove my Chevy to the levee”. It’s an effective and memorable lyric because McLean adds interesting detail (the Chevy), throws in a perfect rhyme (Chevy and levee), and kind of makes you smile all at the same time. Now that’s making good use of a lyric line! (Note to Kenny Chesney: If you’re going to use a famous rhyme like Chevy and levee, I think you should make it a tad clearer that a tribute is being paid to the earlier song, hm?)

And let me count the ways to say I love you: You fill up my senses like a night in the forest (John Denver), I feel the earth move under my feet (Carole King), I left my heart in San Francisco (Douglass Cross), or, I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree (Johnny Burke). These lines convey the same meaning while adding detail, beautiful imagery, or unusual metaphors. This kind of depth helps tap the listeners’ full attention and sets them up for a stronger emotional response to the song.

I’ll close with a suggestion from Leonard Cohen, a songwriter who is considered as much a poet as a musician:

You don’t really want to say “the tree”, you want to say “the sycamore”. We seem to be able to relate to detail. We seem to have an appetite for it. It seems that our days are made of details, and if you can’t get the sense of another person’s day of details, your own day of details is summoned in your mind in some way rather than just a general line like “the days went by”. It’s better to say, “watching Captain Kangaroo”. Not “watching TV”. Sitting in my room “with that hopeless little screen”. Not just TV, but the hopeless, little screen. I think those are the details that delight us. (Leonard Cohen, 1992 interview with Paul Zollo, Songwriters on Songwriting)

Kelley Martin
November 2005