What They Forgot to Teach at Rhyme School

Okay, so there’s no such school as Rhyme School (hmm, perhaps I could open one…), but there are many, many language experts from whom we have learned to rhyme, in our pursuit of better songwriting.  Whether in person, in books or magazines, or online, we have learned a little or a lot about the purpose and the execution of rhyming in songwriting.  It is an essential tool for establishing phrase lengths, emphasizing important words, setting patterns for repetition, and generally exciting the tension-anticipation-release cycles in our listeners’ brains.

When rhyming is done well, it appears effortless and endlessly creative.  When done poorly, it leads to distraction and destruction of the listening experience.

Teachers of songwriting will teach about Perfect Rhyme, Assonant Rhyme, Consonant Rhyme, Internal Rhyme, and on – essential topics – but one truly important aspect of rhyming doesn’t seem to get enough attention:  Rhyme Gender.

Maybe it’s because we’re already arguing so much about gender issues, that a meek songwriting teacher just isn’t up to the task of uttering the words “masculine” and “feminine” in a discussion of rhyme, for fear of starting a heated debate.

In the case of Rhyme Gender, there’s nothing to get worked up about, sociologically speaking.  Rhyme Gender refers only to the way rhymes depend on, and adhere to, the natural rhythm of stresses in the pronunciation of our words.

Did I lose you?  Let’s get really simple.  Every word is pronounced in an agreed-upon manner.  The word “pronounced” has two syllables, “pro” and “nounced”, with an agreed-upon way of speaking the word:  its second syllable is spoken with more emphasis, or “stress”, than the first syllable.  By contrast, the word “simple” is spoken with more emphasis, or “stress”, on the first syllable, “sim”, than on the second syllable, “ple”.  When we speak, or sing, words in a way that goes against the agreed-upon rhythm of the word, our listeners’ ears don’t understand the words we’re delivering.

To Rhyme, or Not To Rhyme, That is the question

The simplest rhymes are those between words that only have one syllable.  “Moon” and “June” rhyme, we all know that, and all but the most stalwart English professors will agree that this is a Perfect Rhyme – the end vowel sound and the end consonant sound match exactly between the two words.  (The stalwart English professors will argue that the “oo” sound in “moon” and the “u” sound in “June” are actually different vowel sounds.  But save that argument for another blog, or better yet, ignore the argument forever.)

Also, we can point at the non-rhyming pair of words, “soap” and “clean”.  Neither the end vowel sound, nor the end consonant sound, match at all between the two words.  This pair of words will never give a listener the satisfying sense of resolution that will come from a rhyming pair of words, regardless of how in-harmony the meanings of those two words might be.

Bored yet?  Here’s where things get fun.  Congratulations for sticking with me this far.

“Moon” and “June” can rhyme with one another because both words are single-syllable words, and so are both given emphasis when spoken.  (It helps that they are both nouns – other forms of speech are naturally given less spoken emphasis because of their function in connecting words into phrases – words like “of”, “with”, “or”, “a”, “the”, “in”, are examples of words which naturally are spoken with less emphasis than the words spoken either before or after them.)

Okay, okay, I’m getting there…  Consider now, a two-syllable word which appears to rhyme with “moon”, but does not:  “teaspoon”.  “What”, you say?  “But of course it rhymes – it has an identical ending vowel sound and identical ending consonant sound.  You buffoon!  You maroon!  It is even a Perfect Rhyme!”

According to many of the lessons in rhyme, it would certainly appear that “moon” and “teaspoon” are rhyming words.  But how do the words strike your ear?  Do you feel as if, somehow, the “rhyming” between “moon” and “June” is far more satisfying than the rhyming between “moon” and “teaspoon”?  Can you imagine a song setting up a rhyme expectation by giving me “moon”, and then trying to resolve that rhyme by giving me “teaspoon” in the next rhyme position?

Masculine or Feminine

Here’s the secret sauce that seems to be neglected in nearly all discussions of rhyme.  The rhythm of the words matters!  If you want your listener to “hear” the satisfying rhyme resolution when your word doesn’t end with a stressed syllable, you need to rhyme the final stressed syllable as well as the final unstressed syllable(s).

“Coffee” and “train fee” is an attempt to rhyme two syllables, but a rhyme on “fee” doesn’t appear because of the mismatched stress patterns.  “Coffee” is stressed on the first syllable, unstressed on the second; “train fee” is two strong stresses.  More examples of failed rhymes thanks to mismatched stress patterns (say them out loud and listen):

coffee / iced tea
it was you / broke curfew
pleasure / for sure

What about “coffee” and “toffee”?  Ahhhh, a satisfying rhyme – you might even say tasty.  Now, the rhyme resolves heartily in our ear because the stressed first syllables rhyme before the rhyme of the unstressed second syllable.

Rhyming away from the final syllable is called Feminine rhyming.

Rhyming the last syllable – and it only works where the last syllable is stressed – is called Masculine rhyming.

A big part of this – and a big part of setting words to music – is understanding that the beats in the music are naturally designed to pair with either stressed syllables or unstressed syllables, and the placement of an unstressed syllable on a strong beat feels like a marching band suddenly trying to step two “lefts” before the next “right”.  But I’ll save strong beats for another discussion…

To Sum Up

Rhyming away from the final syllable is called Feminine rhyming.

Rhyming the stressed final syllable is called Masculine rhyming.

Rhyming one word with a stressed final syllable and another with an unstressed final syllable is called… not really rhyming.


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