Post: Words that Rhyme [or Songwriting "Rules"]

Words That Rhyme [or, Songwriting “Rules”]

I recently received a message from a disgruntled fan with an artistic bone to pick. He was writing to inform me that “last does not rhyme with glass“, adding: “it was a huge mistake to put such a glaring error in the first track”

Duly noted. (He was referring, of course, to the chorus line of “St. Brigid’s Fire”, the opening track on The Spark.)

But believe it or not, this isn’t the first time someone has brought up the issue of rhymes [or lack thereof] in one my songs. One of the earliest comments left under my most viewed video to date reads, in part:  “your lyrics, though fantastic, don’t really have a set scheme for rhyme or anything. I know songs don’t have to have that., I was just noticing.”

Concerning the first message, I’ll defer to the insights of California-based poet [and expert wordsmith] Dan Nicholls, who says:

“Half rhyme is a feature and not a bug! Or at least it’s in constant use. We like it (and notice it) so much we have a slew of names for it—slant, off, partial, etc. Add to this the stretchability of the other building blocks of our lyric sense—syllable and stress—and how hard our rhyme has to be (to be pleasing) is even less certain. Syllables pack in a number of sounds into the same unit and stress lets us swallow or explode sounds almost at will. And then there’s regional accent! Our language is inherently playful and stretchy.”

The other comment about my lyrics not really having “a set scheme for rhyme” was particularly interesting to me when I first saw it five years ago. Comments like it get me, as a songwriter, asking questions about the “rules” of songwriting. Questions like: Are there rules for songwriting?

Some songwriters might answer that question with an emphatic, Of course, there are rules! I’m inclined to answer, simply, No. A set rhyme scheme isn’t necessary. Bridges aren’t necessary. Choruses aren’t even necessary! A song can be amazing without any of those things. Here’s proof.

From the initial composition of the music to a song’s final arrangement, production, lyrical form, structure, and intended meaning (if any meaning was intended), the songwriting process is so utterly subjective and personal that to apply rules to it would be to limit the personal expression. And isn’t that the whole point? An artist creates something personal, shares it, and that “something personal” resonates with some audience somewhere for some reason, thereby becoming something so much more, something interpersonal, something communal.

One of the most interesting albums I’ve purchased in the last few years was Derek Webb‘s 2012 concept album Ctrl. It defies genre and convention. In Webb’s own words, the album is “both personal autopsy and cultural observation about how we use technology to try and control our lives”. It’s one of the most innovative and challenging concept albums since Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz. It’s a sonic trip through life, death, and re-animation, featuring nylon stringed classical guitars, drum machines, electronic effects, and Sacred Harp singing (which I had never heard of before this record). While it’s not an album I listen to all that often, it is an album that I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate listening to. I’ve relished [on numerous occasions] the experience of listening to it with other people and talking about it with them.

Despite the fact that he came to the table with something totally different and original, Ctrl didn’t find as much commercial success as some of Webb’s previous records, prompting this Tweet shortly after the albums release:

Those interested in the mechanics of the craft have no doubt noticed common norms and conventions in songwriting, especially in pop music. But norms and conventions are only “standards” or “rules” for the music business. The business needs a product with a pattern, with a formula, in order to feel safer about marketing and selling its “art”. The problem many independent artists have with this idea is that art loses so much of its personality and authenticity when it’s so heavily processed and so deliberately custom-tailored to fit into a professionally packaged commercial product. This is precisely why Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and more recent movements like Love Good Music have become so attractive to artists and their supporters as an alternative means of funding their artistic projects: it takes the chains off, frees the creativity from the demands of commercial viability.

As an exercise, tune in to your local pop or contemporary Christian radio station for just 10 minutes. Assuming those 10 minutes are commercial-free, odds are you’ll hear at least two songs with the following structure:

VERSE > VERSE > CHORUS > VERSE > CHORUS > BRIDGE > CHORUS (where most of the music drops out) > CHORUS (with music back in) > end song

This is a popular music industry formula. My purpose in acknowledging it is not to denounce the formula outright, for doing so would be to [ironically] impose a rule on songwriting. Besides, I’ve used that very formula in several songs of my own. When it works, it works. And that, I suppose, is my point, is my purpose: to make a song work as best I can, no matter how many norms and conventions I may have to disregard in order to feel like I’ve made something unique, something interesting. That’s the goal. And, as Flannery said:

Flannery O'Connor

So…sorry, disgruntled fan. If rhyming “last” with “glass” is too rough an assault on your senses, just skip to the next track. But watch out: in track #2 I rhyme “hide” with “find”.