Soapbox: On Rhyme Schemes

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soapbox One of the things I came away from two Conventions’-worth of binge-listening with was a strong opinion about the writing of original lyrics. There is a clear right way and wrong way to do this and a lot of people seem to be unnecessarily choosing the latter.

So, you know how you write jokes? You do the set-up first, and once people have all the information they need to get the joke, you deliver the punch-line, preferably ending with the word that creates the laugh, or at most one or two words after it. This is the principle that drives the writing of non-funny material too: you land on the most important point at the cadence-point.

We’ll walk through how this pertains to song-writing in two stages. First, turning jokes into lyrics, i.e. creating comedy songs. Here, you work backwards from your punchline: you put the punch-word on the cadence point, and construct the rest of the line to be the right length, and with the right rhythm, to land there. Then you reverse engineer the rhyme scheme so that your set-up includes a word in the right place that rhymes with what your punchline will be. Hence, when the song is delivered, you get a satisfying ‘Aha’ moment when you get to the punchline, as the metre and rhyme scheme corrals everyone to the point of reveal.

To apply this principle to writing non-comedic lyrics: here you don’t have a punchline per se, but you do have both key moments in the narrative, and key words that are particularly expressive in the story. Like punchlines, you want these to come at the most musically salient moments, and again as with punchlines, the way you do this is getting them placed first and reverse engineering the rhyme scheme from there.

A bunch of times at BABS and EBC Conventions I heard lyrics that got this the wrong way round (where ‘a bunch’= a number large enough to provoke me into being opinionated in a generalising way, not just transiently grumpy). You’d hear a first couplet of the structure that sounded fine – made sense, words interesting enough to hold attention without being mannered, scansion and metre worked. That would then be followed with a second couplet that didn’t really advance the story and/or produced a contrived rhyme. You’d reach the cadence thinking, ‘There’s no way someone would have put that word into this song if it weren’t because they’d needed a rhyme with <whatever ended the previous couplet>.’

The thing is, usually the rhyme could have worked okay if it had been placed in a supporting role, musically, rather than in the most important part of the phrase. Putting the weaker choice in the spot where attention is most focused just draws attention to its weakness; putting your stronger choice there not only over-rides the memory of the weaker one, but by supplying a rhyme along with narrative impact, makes it look better. From which we can derive a nice, simple rule:

If you include a word because it rhymes with another word you have already chosen, put it first, as set-up rather than as punchline. Put your first-choice words in prime position at the cadence.

For sure you may occasionally find the creative process surprises you with a really good phrase to finish a couplet, sometimes even one that takes your story to places you hadn’t thought of. Mostly, though, this doesn’t happen, so you need a technique to create competent-sounding rhyme schemes.

Take inspiration from Victoria Wood:

Be mighty
Be flighty
Come and melt the buttons on my flame-proof nightie

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