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Power to the Poet: Rhymes
by Bud Tower
© December, 2007 Bud Tower. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission.

We all think we know what rhymes are and what rhymes. But, the devil is in the details and the more we really know about what rhymes and why, the better and more efficiently we as writers can express ourselves. For instance, if you don't know what really makes words rhyme, it's hard to understand how to use rhyming dictionaries or even to understand how they are organized. When you are stuck for a rhyme, it's nice to know that things like "mosaic" rhymes or end rhymes can bail you out.

So, let's dive in. What about two words that "sound alike"? Do, they rhyme? "Cat" and "cad"; those sort of sound alike, but are they rhymes? Well, no--not pure rhymes anyway. So the "sound alike" definition all by itself is not sufficient to define what rhymes.

What about "Mayday" and "way"? Look in most rhyming dictionaries and you won't find "Mayday" in the section where you find "day." You will find "Mayday" in the section where you find "payday." Why?

Well, the first thing about rhymes is that the parts of the two words that are said to rhyme must be accented. The accent in "Mayday" and "payday" are on the first syllable "may-" and "pay-", respectively, not on the last syllable "day." So another part of our definition has to consider where the accent falls. (That syllable is called the "tonic" syllable--let's use that term from now on.)

Does, "Mayday" rhyme with "flavor"? "Hell no," you say. But, it does rhyme on the tonic syllable, doesn't it? Yup. But, obviously "-vor" and "-day" clash. So, we need another piece of our definition. The tonic syllable has to sound alike and if there is a following syllable, it has to be identical or sound alike too. "Mayday" and "payday" meet this definition as do "Mayday" and "waylay."

Words that rhyme where the tonic syllable is ANY SYLLABLE BUT THE LAST are said to be "feminine rhymes." In "Masculine" rhymes, the tonic syllable is…you guessed it, the last syllable. (With some words like "powwow," it's hard to say which syllable is the tonic syllable. Moreover, some longer words may have primary and secondary accents. Let's just say those words and the complexities they present in rhyming are beyond the scope of this article.)

What about "Mayday" and Mayday"? Those meet our earlier definition; the tonic syllables sound alike as do the following syllables. Can you rhyme a word with itself? Before you scream "no, you dummy" at me, think how many times you have heard songwriters do just that (Emerson Drive springs to mind,

"I should be sleeping,'stead of keeping
These late hours I've been keeping")

Lord, I hate those lines!! (Shows what I know, the song was a "career" hit for the band!!!)

So, we need to expand our definition. First, let's break down what a word is into its component parts and give these parts some names so we can have a discussion here that all can follow.

Words consist of letters. Those letters are either vowels or consonants. A word can be a single vowel, but in its shortest form, is usually a vowel followed by a consonant, like "oh." That--what we call the "following consonant" (in this case the "h")--is silent. A consonant falling before a vowel we refer to as a "preceding consonant." Pretty tricky, huh!!

Some words like "sleep" have more than one preceding consonant, "sl." "Sleep" also has a vowel after its vowel (the double "e's") and then a following consonant. It's a good illustration of what we call "consonantal sounds." The "sl" is a "preceding consonantal sound" and the "ep" is a "following consonantal sound."

The vowel that falls in the tonic syllable, we refer to as the "rhyme vowel." "I" in "light," "o" in "go," "a" in "day," for instance. The "rhyme sound" may consist just of the "rhyme vowel" in the case of words like "go" or "day" (where the following consonantal sound of the "y" is silent) or it may consist of the sound produced by the combination of the "vowel sound" and the following consonantal sound. In both these case, we label the result the "rhyme sound." "-eeping" then is the "rhyme sound" in "sleeping" and "keeping."

The "rhyme sound" is the fundamental building block of rhyming. In fact, it's so important that many rhyming dictionaries are organized by rhyme sound!!! We will return to that subject when we get into the whole area of rhyming dictionaries in another installment of these articles about rhyming.

With those defined terms in mind, let's go back to the hapless "keeping" and "keeping" of Emerson Drive. We know they don't rhyme because we have said that identical words are not rhymes, but "sleeping" does rhyme with "keeping." and it's because the preceding consonantal sound of the tonic syllable is DIFFERENT while the vowel sound and the following consonantal sound (which taken together are the "rhyme sound") of the tonic syllable is IDENTICAL!!!

So, what's our definition up to this point? It's as follows:

Two words can be said to "rhyme" when:

1)    Their rhyme sounds are identical.
2)    Their preceding consonantal sounds are different.

Does that definition cover all of the possible rhyming situations? Well no--we have one more minor wrinkle. What about our "Mayday" and "waylay" example from earlier. The tonic syllable is the first, so the rhyme sound is made up of "-ay" and everything that follows after it--it's "following consonantal sound" which is different. "-day" as in "Mayday" and -lay" as in "waylay" are not identical.

Though some rhyming resources (in book, software, or online form) refer to all feminine rhymes as "double" or "triple" rhymes (or "quadruple," etc.), in fact, the "Mayday" and "waylay" situation is an example of a true or real double rhyme and if you apply our 2-step definition of a rhyme to each of the two parts or syllables of the double rhyme, the definition is accurate.

Perhaps we could modify our previous definition to handle this wrinkle though. What if we said…

Two words can be said to "rhyme" when:

1)    Their rhyme sounds are identical or themselves rhyme
2)    Their preceding consonantal sounds are different.

I think that definition pretty much covers the whole waterfront.

So, that's what "real" academically-defined "rhymes" are. What about out here on the street? Rap writers blow me away. The stuff they come up with!!! They employ three fundamental techniques (as have a lot of writers in other genres throughout the years and poets as well):

1)    Near rhymes
2)    End rhymes
3)    Mosaic rhymes

Let's take them in reverse order as a "mosaic" rhyme is the easiest to illustrate. "Tell us" and "jealous." Combining two or more words to rhyme with another single word is what constitutes a mosaic rhyme. Let's try another: "water tower" and "bought her flower" in which case we have two mosaic rhyme "words." Note that the tonic "syllables" (actually words) in these constructs has to line up too for these to really work solidly.

Another comment is probably in order here too. Many words in English (and undoubtedly other languages too--but I don't speak 'em so I can't for sure say!!) have some funky spelling. Take "bought" from above. It's essentially an "a" as in "awe" vowel sound but it's got a bunch of "extra" and seemingly extraneous (some would say random) letters in it. This happens constantly in English and raises a point. How a word is spelled is irrelevant to what it may rhyme with--pronunciation is king. Moreover, think of the alternatives: "live" as in "alive" and "live" as in "live like you we're dyin'." Ignore the spelling--focus on the pronunciation!!!

"End" rhymes are a little more complicated. Going back to our earlier example, of "Mayday" and "way." That's a good case of "end" rhymes. "Mayday" is a feminine word (accent on any syllable other than the last one--in this case "May-") whereas, "way" is a masculine word (as are ALL one syllable words by definition). Classically speaking, no feminine word EVER rhymes with a masculine word. But in the real world, poets and songwriters do it all the time and are engaging in "end rhyming".

Many of you probably use near rhymes all the time. Also called, imperfect rhymes, slant rhymes, off rhymes, soft rhymes, etc. (versus pure or perfect or hard rhymes--some of the names given to classically defined rhymes). Some examples are go/goat, goat/blow, goat/goad, etc.

So, how do you make a near rhyme? There are three basic approaches:

1)    Additive near rhymes
2)    Subtractive near rhymes
3)    Consonant substitution near rhymes

All of these approaches involve manipulating the following consonant. In the go/goat example, we are adding a "t" (the "a" is silent and irrelevant). The goat/blow example is a subtractive approach where we are deleting the following consonant (the "w" is silent and irrelevant). Finally, the goat/goad example shows consonant substitution.

In future articles in this series, we will cover rhyming resources (like rhyming dictionaries), how they are organized and how and when to use them. But meanwhile, how 'bout a few tips on using rhymes in songs so that this article becomes something actionable that you can use.

Tip #1: Never sacrifice meaning for rhyme!!! I'd rather use a crummy rhyme than leave my listener either bored or wondering what the heck I'm talking about. That's no doubt why Emerson Drive went along with the "keeping/keeping" lines. The lines said exactly what they wanted to say and my guess is that the writers agonized over those lines but in the end, just couldn't come up with a rhyme, so they punted 'cuz at least they were saying what they wanted to say.

Tip #2: Try not to repeat the use of the same vowel sound (see definition earlier in this article) more than one time.  Let's construct an example. Let's assume you have written a song and it has 4 lines in each of it's two verses, a four line chorus and a three line bridge. Your rhyme scheme is AABB  (meaning that the first two lines rhyme with each other as do the last two lines) in the verses, ABCB in the chorus, and AAA in the bridge. We might chose to use the following rhyme vowels scheme:

Verse 1
A "Night" ("i" vowel sound)
A "Light" ("i" vowel sound)
B "Say" ("a" vowel sound)
B "Day" ("a" vowel sound)
A "Love" ("a" as in "ov" vowel sound)
B "Deep" ("ee" vowel sound)
C "Heart" ("ar" vowel sound)
B "Leap"  ("ee" vowel sound)

Verse 2
A "Low" ("o" vowel sound)
A "Slow" ("o" vowel sound)
B "Let" ("e" as in "eh" vowel sound)
B "Met" ("e" as in "eh" vowel sound)

Repeat Chorus

A "Sing" ("e" as in "ing" vowel sound)
A "Bring" ("e" as in "ing" vowel sound)
A "Ring" ("e" as in "ing" vowel sound)

The words I have used above represent example last words in each line, but are otherwise capricious and meaningless. What is not meaningless though is that every rhyme is different. This goes a long way to making your lyrics stronger and fresher. You should especially try not to recycle the vowel sounds you use in your choruses in  your verses!!!

You might want to make such a chart of all of your lyrics and see what you are doing. Over time as you start to write this way, you will see that it becomes second nature. Another byproduct of this kind of chart is that you begin to focus on the "power" of your end-of-line words. If they are all mundane and commonplace, perhaps you should be doing "better"?

Tip #3: In my example above I have used all one syllable (masculine) rhymes. I would say that a very high percentage of songs are written this way. Why not use feminine rhymes? Think about the famous Lee Ann Womack song "I Hope You Dance." Let's look at a little bit of that lyric:

I Hope You Dance
© Tia Sillers & Mark D. Sanders

Ist Verse
I hope you never lose your sense of wonder
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger
May you never take one single breath for granted
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed
I hope you still feel small when you stand by the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens

Notice the feminine rhymes: wonder/hunger, granted/handed, ocean/opens

Few songs are written this way and I commend it to you as a way to set your work apart!!

In future articles in this series, we will talk about how to use other kinds of rhymes: near rhymes and end rhymes. We will also cover other ways to keep your rhymes fresh. Let me know if this article was helpful--feel free to email me at:

Meanwhile, here's a couple of resources for you:
•    1,290 words that rhyme with love:
•    What are the "rhymiest" words:


Bud Tower is a songwriter/singer from Nashville and New Orleans. Bud co-wrote Hank William's Jr.s radio single "Red, White & Pink-slip Blues" off Hank's "127 Rose Avenue" album and "God & Guns," the title track of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 2009-released album.  Bud also is the creator of rhyming dictionary site

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