Perfect Doesn’t Always Make Good Practice …Follow @rwleslie2
If you ask the average person
(that’s an androgynous type who’s about 1m 65 tall, maybe just a tad chubby, with 2.4 kids – I always feel sorry for the 0.4 kid)
to rhyme the word Moon, the most likely response is that old, but perfectly-rhyming cliché June.
It’s a perfect rhyme, but it’s also so boringly predictable that it’s prescribed by the Health Service as a sedative … zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
So, what can you use in its place?
Well, the list of perfect rhymes by no means stops with June, so let’s have a look at some of them:
Not very inspiring, are they? That’s the trouble with perfect rhymes, they’re either complete clichés, or they only sound good in comic songs where that kind of predictability can be used to satirical purpose. Tom Lehrer made a career out of that sort of thing.
The girl that I lament for
The girl my money’s spent for
The girl my back is bent for
The girl I owe the rent for
The girl I gave up Lent for
Is the girl that heaven meant for me
©Tom Lehrer 1959
A Near Hit …
So, what can a songwriter aspiring to some kind of originality do instead?
Many still argue that you should always try for a perfect rhyme because most of the great songwriters of the past did so.
That kind of overlooks the fact that maybe Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart (or even Nahum Tate – who? Look him up!) could do that because they got in on the ground floor before all these word combinations became hackneyed.
In these modern times, songwriters have developed the art of the near-rhyme – of which there are several kinds. Just off the top of my head, if I were asked to find near-rhymes for Moon, here’s the list that might result:
Some of these use the same final sound [n], some use the same final vowel [u], and some use part of a word as a rhyme and let the rest spill into an empty beat or onto the next line of the melody.
Now, these are way off from being close rhymes, but they would certainly be useful if you wanted to break up a perfect rhyme scheme by alternating near and perfect rhymes, eg
We looked at the moon
And wished we could run
From this cold barren land
To the tropical sun
That could be regarded as an ABCB pattern, but the ‘vowel + n’ motif finishes every line
[‘oon’ ‘un’ ‘an’ ‘un’]
and creates a kind of sonic binding-together of the lines. If you put a tune to it and sang it, it’d sound more like an ABAB or even a ‘weak’A’strong’A‘weak’A’strong’A pattern
And just compare the interest level of that verse with one based on perfect rhymes:
We looked at the moon
And wished maybe soon
We could walk on the dunes
On a warm afternoon
Similar sentiments, both using the same line as a kicker, but, despite my best efforts, the second one sounds a bit hammy to me. Let’s see what it sounds like if we don’t put in the ‘vowel +n’ near rhymes:
We looked at the moon
And wished we could run
There on the shore
To the warm rising sun
Now, MY order of preference, from best to worst, would be A C B
A is what I’d call a medium strength lyric, C is weaker, but B is just banal.
What do you think?
In practice, the songwriter rarely if ever says to her/himself, “I think I’ll try a spot of assonance here!” or “I’ll very cleverly make each line spill over onto the next one!”
What really occurs is our scribe getting wedded to a particular line that she/he thinks is fantastic and doesn’t want to change for the world, and then discovering that it would be easier to write a “Goodbye, cruel world” note than find something that rhymes with that “perfect line.”
What saves our author’s life, more often than not, is the effecting of a literary compromise by screwing in some kind of near rhyme.
In my experience, that can sometimes lead to writing an even BETTER line, junking the first one, and starting the whole soul-destroying process all over again!
So, given that the near rhyme can be a lifesaver, let’s look at the different types, shall we?
In Which Faithless Vowels Desert Their Consonants …
I’ve mentioned assonance a few times in recent blog posts, so let’s start with that:
Assonance = using words which rhyme the vowel, but not the consonant
I’ll show you what that means. If you’re looking for a rhyme for rain, assonant possibilities might be
By the way, I realise that not everyone will make the same vowel sound in these words. Scots and North American accents will generally work OK with these. Some southern English and Irish accents would probably find a few of these words don’t actually have the same vowel sound in their dialect. “SORRRRRY about that”, said the Scotsman.
Those Constant Consonants …
Consonance = keeping the end consonant the same but varying the vowel
Sticking with rain, consonant near rhymes could be
Happy Families …
I saw another site call these next ones ‘Family Rhymes’ – and that’s as good a name as any, so I’ll pinch it!
Family rhymes = rhyming the vowel,
but using any of the consonant’s ‘near relatives’
Now, what the deuce does THAT mean? Well, consonants are grouped according to where in the mouth the tongue is, whether the vocal chords are vibrating (‘voiced’ vs ‘unvoiced’), mouth shape, and a whole bunch of other doodads.
The easiest example is ‘voiced’ consonants vs ‘unvoiced’ consonants. Put your fingers on the side of your neck and make a long ‘vvvvvvvv’ sound. You should feel some vibration under your fingers – it also makes a pretty audible sound.
Now do the same thing again, but make an ‘ffffffff’ sound. No throat vibration and just a breathy sort of noise – nowhere near as loud. Now do both again, but this time pay attention to the shape of your mouth and the position of your tongue and lips.
They should be exactly the same, because the only difference betweenthe two sounds, in terms of how we make them, is that V vibrates the vocal cords and F does not. Here is a list of matched pairs, consonant sounds which use the same mouth/tongue/lips shapes but one is voiced and the other unvoiced:
The thing to do, if you can’t find a perfect rhyme, is to swap over the consonants, then try to find a word that rhymes with THAT. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you need something to rhyme with dog, and you’ve already used all the perfect rhymes that fit the ideas contained in the song. Simply change dog to dock and then look for a rhyme to THAT. Instantly, from being completely stuck, you can now choose from a list that includes
Even more helpfully, consonants turn out to belong to even bigger families once we take other features that they have in common into account (for example, putting the tongue behind the teeth, or changing the shape of the mouth).
I’m not going to go into the formal names, because you’re not undertaking an in-depth study of phonology, just looking for a few sneaky rhymes. So, I’ll just group them into their families and ask you to truly believe you can substitute any one consonant in a family for any other consonant in that family and get a lovely near rhyme!
Family 1 – the Noseys:
m, n, ng
Family 2 – the Puffers:
b, d, g, p, t, k
Family 3 – the Fizzers:
v, f, z, j, th [bathe], th [bath], s, sh, ch
Odds and Sods …
Now, not all words used in rhymes are single syllables like dog or lock. Some words rhyme in more than one place. If a medical student were writing a funny song about medical matters, she/he might rhyme particular with mandibular. That one, if you look at it closely, has 4 matching rhymes – 2 near, and 2 perfect.
Paul McCartney, in one of his most famous songs, rhymed one word with two words (but the syllables added up to the same count) yesterday and far away.
Also, if it suits your purpose, you can use words with extra syllables or letters before or after the rhyme just so long as the stress falls on the rhyme. At its simplest, that could involve making a word plural – She told me straight it was the end/She hated me and all my friends. Or rhyme bleed with needing or store with poorly (accents are important here again, that last one works if you’re from Texas!).
So, there you have it. No need to drive yourself crazy looking for the perfect rhyme. Just dip into your bag of assonances, consonances, and funny families, and you’ll find all you need to complete those problematic lines. Next time, we’ll have a look at a range of popular rhyme patterns. Byeeeeeee!
Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter