Songwriting Secrets – Rhymes

Songwriting Secrets is my insight into songwriting tips, tricks and things I have learnt over the years. Things I wished I had known when I first started out in songwriting, as well as techniques and ideas I am still using and developing today!

A solid rhyme scheme is a surefire way to catch the listeners ear. Audiences love it, and cleverly placed rhymes can really enhance lyrics. But sometimes finding the right rhyme can be tricky. Every songwriter knows the familiar feeling of floundering at the end of a line trying to find a decent rhyme while keeping context! Today I hope to share with you my thoughts on how to get the most out of one of the most powerful parts of songwriting.

What are Rhyme Schemes?

Rhyme is a crucial part of the songwriting process. It helps solidify the structure and rhythm of a song. Rhyme spotlights important ideas within a lyric and gives an emotional payoff for earlier lines. Rhyme increases both the memorability and ‘singability’ of your song. We even get a dopamine hit when we hear rhymes “click.” Particularly rhymes at the end of a line, also known as end rhymes.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves and get stuck into patterns of rhyme, we need to discuss exact rhymes, ‘close’ rhymes and ‘near’ rhymes. The first I hope is pretty self explanatory; exact rhymes are those which have the same sound to the word. These will normally be the same number of syllables as each other as well to be the exact rhyme. Where as close rhymes will have the same rhyming sound but are probably different syllables.

Exact Rhymes – Fly – Cry, Why, My
Close Rhymes – Fly – Supply, Deny

Near rhymes will have the same or similar sound to the word, or end of the word, but are not exactly the same sound;

Exact Rhyme – Drown – Frown, Brown
Near Rhyme – Drown – House, Loud

Near rhymes are more representative of how you pronounce the word. They are more loose and free in their use and shouldn’t be overlooked!

But rhymes don’t just turn up randomly. For the most part, they arrive in a structured pattern. This pattern of end rhyme in a song is called a rhyme scheme.  Getting to grips with rhyme schemes will help you avoid rhymes that sound “cheesy” or corny. They will help you feel propelled by rhyme rather than choked by it!

How does a rhyme scheme work?

A rhyme scheme is the pattern of end rhymes. We can keep track of a song’s rhyme scheme using letters from the alphabet. When two lines end with the same sound, they’re given a letter. So the first rhyme in a song would be A, the second is B, and so on through the alphabet. If the word at the end of a line doesn’t rhyme with any other, it’s given an X. This is my preferred way to notate rhymes, and I think its pretty recognisable across the board as well.

So how do we create patterns with rhyme?

In most songwriting, there are two dominant groups of schemes used. Four-line schemes and six-line schemes. There are exceptions, of course, but a good place to get a handle on this is to start with those most often used. I’ve included examples below to help;

The Most Popular Four-Line Rhyme Schemes

#1: AABB

An AABB rhyme scheme is made up of four lines. The first two lines are a pair, as are the last two lines.

Each of the pairs has a different rhyme. This type of end rhyme is also referred to as a couplet. You can see this at work in Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping

This scheme also unites each new idea with a couplet. Once the rhyming couplet finishes, a new couplet (and idea) starts. Have another look:

Idea 1 – the A rhyme
Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

Idea 2 – the B rhyme
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping

This way of moving your ideas through the song (particularly the verses) is called topic movement. It’s a key reason why rhyme schemes are so well used in song. We hear rather than read the words.

#2: ABAB

This very popular scheme has interlocking rhymes. ABAB is also known as alternate rhyme.
Here is how you can write it:

  • Rhyme the first line with the third.
  • Rhyme the second line with the fourth, but using a different vowel sound to the A Rhyme.

A good example is Best Of You, the power rock song by the Foo Fighters

I’ve got another confession to make
I’m your fool
Everyone’s got their chains to break
Holdin’ you

#3: AAAA

This scheme has all the lines ending with the same rhyme. It’s also known as monorhyme. Using this scheme is harder to keep sounding fresh, but it’s great for creating a buildup.

Here’s Sam Smith’s Latch.

You lift my heart up when the rest of me is down
You, you enchant me even when you’re not around
If there are boundaries, I will try to knock them down
I’m latching on, babe, now I know what I have found

At first glance you could say this is an ABAB rhyme, but when you include near rhymes this is very much an AAAA formula

#4: ABBA

This rarer scheme works as a sandwich. It’s called an enclosed or envelope rhyme.

You rhyme the first line with the last one. Then the two lines between them rhyme with each other, but the rhyme sounds different.

Here’s James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James.

There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for summer his pastures to change

#5: AAAB

Everything rhymes except for the very last line in the verse. Often, this last line has a completely different amount of syllables as the three lines before it. This rhyming scheme differs from the similar AAAX scheme because the B rhyme works in multiple verses, for example.

Here’s Coldplay with the verse scheme from Fix You.

When you try your best but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want but not what you need
When you feel so tired but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse

When the tears come streaming down your face
‘Cause you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
What could be worse?

#6: XAXA

In XAXA, you have two lines that do not rhyme with others and two that do.

  • Make sure that lines 1 and 3 do not rhyme with each other or with any other line
  • Line 2 and line 4 do rhyme with each other.

This scheme’s less predictable, because it has two lines that don’t rhyme with anything.

But it allows the potential for a more natural, conversational way of writing. That makes it a real favorite with contemporary songwriters.

Like The Police, with Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic.

I resolved to call her up
A thousand times a day
Ask her if she’ll marry me
In some old-fashioned way

Six Line Schemes

Six-line schemes are also very popular in modern music, and can often allow for a longer idea to be developed in the lines..

#1: AABCCB

This section has three different rhymes. Lines 1 and 2 have the same end rhymes, and lines 4 and 5 rhyme together but are different from the first rhyme. Finally, lines 3 and 6 are the same end rhyme. This scheme is great to use when there’s a lot to say! But perhaps the champion is Leonard Cohen. He allegedly wrote 80 potential verses for Hallelujah using this structure.

Now, I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

#3: AAABBB

Here’s Ed Sheeran at work using it to pile on the pressure in the A-Team verse. It works so well here with the short, almost abrupt lines. There is also great use of near rhymes in this example.

White lips, pale face
Breathing in snowflakes
Burnt lungs, sour taste
Lights gone, day’s end
Struggling to pay rent
Long nights, strange men

#4: XAAXBB

John Mayer tweaks that tension with a subtler mood-appropriate variation in Why Georgia. I love this song and how it flows in each verse.

I am driving up 85
In the kind of morning that lasts all afternoon
Stuck inside the gloom
Four more exits to my apartment
But I am tempted to keep the car in drive
And leave it all behind

#5: AABAAB

Meanwhile, Shawn Colvin uses this tighter structure to lead us directly to the major change, “fire,” in her chorus of Sunny Came Home.

She says days go by
I don’t know why
I’m walking on a wire
I close my eyes
and fly out of my mind
Into the fire

What else?

There are infinite rhyming schemes you can incorporate into a song, the possibilities are actually endless. You will find that most popular songs use a rhyming scheme and follow it through with each verse using the same scheme. At the very least you will see patterns in the vast majority of songs, because the listener likes to know what to expect. There are some songs out there though, that have no rhymes. Yes, you heard me correctly – No rhymes. Radiohead’s Karma Police is an example of this

Karma police, arrest this man
He talks in maths, he buzzes like a fridge
He’s like a detuned radio
Karma police, arrest this girl
Her Hitler hairdo is making me feel ill
And we have crashed her party

BONUS TIPS

Tip #1 – Don’t memorize all of the schemes, but search out what’s happening in your own songs and what happens in songs you like. They’ll soon become part of your songwriting vocabulary.

Tip #2 – Rhyme schemes are also about structuring your ideas. Align them with your chord progressions and melody. They construct a kind of internal song grammar, what Professor Andrea Stolpe refers to as “the architectural plans of the lyric.”

Tip #3 – Rhyme schemes are useful to crank up contrast between the sections within your song. It’s perfectly normal to use a six-line scheme in a verse. Then a four-line scheme in a chorus, and a different four-line scheme in the bridge.

Tip #4 – Life isn’t always even-numbered, either. Extend (particularly at the end of a section) or add a line to make a five-line or seven-line section. This unbalance creates a great source of tension you can release in the chorus.

George Harrison uses this technique in his five-line AXABB verse of Something In the Way She Moves. It really highlighted the X unrhymed line.

Something in the way she moves
Attracts me like no other lover
Something in the way she woos me
I don’t want to leave her now
You know I believe in how

Conclusion: Rhyme Schemes

The main thing to think about is that there is a whole raft of options to structure your rhymes so they work for you. Rather than feeling forced into using words in ways that sound naff. There are loads of songs that deliberately don’t use end rhymes in certain places, and they sound great.

You can shuffle schemes between verses and choruses. Try out schemes you’ve never used before in your latest song. So if you find yourself struggling, flick over some of the choices available. It could release you from the bind of rhyme to come up with your best lines each and every time.

And if you ultimately find yourself floundering to tell your story but make the rhyme pattern, then you can always check out www.rhymezone.com which is still something I turn too every now and then to look for variations and near rhymes especially.

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