Have you ever ended a line of lyrics with the word “life” and then spent half an hour trying to figure out how you’re going to make the word “wife” fit into the verse, only to get fed up and chuck your notebook to the other side of your room?
During your journey as a budding songwriter, you will inevitably come to a point when you cannot find a rhyme for your song verse (at least, not one that makes any sense). You’ll then ask yourself if you even need to rhyme to write a song. That’s why I’m here to answer your burning questions about all things lyrical and rhyme-y.
Does a Song Really Have to Rhyme?
No, a song does not need to rhyme to be considered a “real” song. It’s okay to use blank verse in your lyrics. However, there is a reason why most popular songs do tend to rhyme, and if you want to maximize the earworm potential of your lyrics you should consider using it.
Rhyming alone will not make a song sound good or catchy, nor will it necessarily improve lines that you’re already struggling to finish. But it can impose healthy limits on the way you compose lyrics and give you direction when you’re stuck; it can also make a song catchier by feeding the listener’s craving for cadence.
Rhyming Depends on Genre and Intent
The points I’m going to make throughout this article have a context of writing songs for popular genres and in mainstream styles. But not everyone wants to write pop songs or be hit-makers.
Blank verse is a completely acceptable form of poetry and, in fact, it is the preferred form of written poetry in the modern world of literary magazines. There are also a number of songs that gained popularity and earned accolades with little to no rhyme in their lyrics—they just tend to be in a minority when looking at modern music as a whole (we’ll touch on those examples later in this article).
If you personally don’t like to rhyme for whatever reason (maybe it feels cheesy, or it does not convey your personality), then don’t try to pigeonhole your creative style into rhymed verse just for the sake of it.
In the least, there’s no need to rhyme every single line or verse in a song just because one couplet you wrote happened to come out with a rhyme.
Rhyme: A Requisite or a Guideline?
Beginning lyricists may believe that a song must follow a specific format to work. If you lack a background in studying written poetry, then you may not be aware of all the forms, styles, conventions, and techniques that poetry can employ. So instead, you begin your journey by searching out a formula for standard pop song composition.
I’m actually not knocking formulaic writing; I re-use the same patterns and structures in my own songs all the time. Formulas can be very helpful to teach newcomers the ropes of composition, but they won’t advance your technique on their own.
Furthermore, some lyricists may find the standard pop rhyme schemes to be too repetitive and limiting. Thankfully, songwriting—at least for independent artists—is an art form and not a production line process. Music lives in the realm of subjectivity, where rules are less essential than they would be in technical fields.
Rhyming is a Tool
While rhyme is a common style of lyric writing, like any other writing style it is merely a tool you can used for expression and not a hard/fast requirement for making art. Think of rhymes for a lyricist like paintbrushes for an artist: you can probably use anything to smear paint on a canvas, but a paintbrush does the job in an efficient and convenient manner.
Likewise, rhyme can make songs easier to write—and easier to sing along with—when they are used to improve the flow of your words. But it is not the only tool you can use for “painting” the landscape of your music.
Why Should I Rhyme My Lyrics?
First, let’s look at the benefits from using rhyme in a song. I can identify 3 key benefits to using it:
- Limits your word choice
- Increases your novelty
- Makes your lyrics catchier
1. Word Choice
Rhyming restricts your choice of words. And this limitation can actually make it easier to finish a verse. That’s because of something we call “Choice overload” or “overchoice”. Choice overload is when you have so many options available that you cannot make a final decision. This can quickly stifle your creativity and stall your flow state while writing.
Let’s say you’re stuck on a line or verse and you don’t know how to end it. If you go with a free-verse format, well there are literally hundreds of thousands of words to choose from in the English language. There are countless variations of words that you could add to the next line. But when you limit your choice of words to those that rhyme somehow, you narrow that list and reduce overchoice.
2. Increasing Novelty
To build on the previous point…limiting your line endings to rhymes can lead you to make more “novel” connections in your lyrics without having to put in much effort honestly. When I say novel, what I mean is unique and unexpected. Rhyming can lead you to adding words you may have never considered putting in a song to begin with. That’s a good thing because people like predictable beats…they don’t like predictable lyrics nearly as much.
How many times have you heard a song that rhymed “sad” with “bad”, or “you” with “blue”? It gets boring after a while. But there is a pretty simple trick to adding novelty to your lyrics with the help of rhyme schemes. I use this technique a lot.
- Open Rhymezone (it’s an online rhyming dictionary),
- Type in the word you want to rhyme with,
- Browse through the results and look for unexpected matches that you can utilize
This technique can lead you to adding unique and uncommon words that would have otherwise never crossed your mind. That can also lead to more novel metaphors and similes in your music, which will make you look more advanced as a writer.
Okay, now onto the third and most important benefit of rhyming…
And that’s catchiness. The human brain loves rhyme because it makes the job of memorizing things so much easier. Without getting too techno-babbly with ya, this is due in part to a process called Acoustic encoding. That is the way your brain stores a new memory by associating it with audio stimuli.
In short, rhyming sounds are easier for the brain to associate…which means they are easier to get nestled down into your long-term memory. It’s the same principle behind a lot of popular educational mnemonics, like “I before E, except after C”.
If you look at the majority of catchy pop songs, they rely on rhyme more often than not. Rhymed verse has also existed for thousands of years as a way to pass on stories and, yes, entertain schoolchildren with dishes running away with spoons. None of this is a fluke.
Research on Rhyme
There is empirical research to suggest that rhyming improves the like-ability of your songs. A group of scientists in Germany performed a study in which they analyzed how pleasing a set of 100 poetry stanzas sounded to participants. But here’s the catch—there were 3 versions of each stanza:
- Original. The original stanza, which was written with both meter and rhyme
- Meter/No Rhyme. A doctored version that had meter, but did not rhyme
- Rhyme/No Meter. Another doctored version that did not have meter, but did include the original rhymes.
The results found that listeners rated the rhyming verses as more likeable and aesthetically pleasing. So, whether or not the research can explain why, it still shows us that people enjoy and even prefer rhyme.
Popular Songs That Don’t Rhyme
As I mentioned at the start, there have been numerous songs in recent history that climbed the charts with little to no rhyming in their lyrics. While some of these songs had a few rhymes thrown in sporadically, none of them feature a full rhyming scheme.
Also, keep in mind this is a non-exhaustive list and there could be countless more examples. I merely want to illustrate that yes, your song can be well-written and catchy without using a formal rhyme pattern. So here are a few musical hits that forewent the use of like endings:
- “Because of You” by Kelly Clarkson
- “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette
- “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” by the Smiths
- “I Write Sings Not Tragedies” by Panic! At the Disco
- “Sugar We’re Going Down” by Fall Out Boy (the chorus rhymes, but the verses don’t)
- “Changes” by David Bowie
A song does not need to rhyme, but rhyme does enhance the natural flow of a composition—which can make it sound catchier. If you already have a perfect line in your head, but you can’t find a way to rhyme it with another equally-impeccable line, then don’t force it.
Use rhyme as a tool for writing compelling lyrics and learning how to craft poetic phrases, but don’t obligate yourself to the style if it does not fit the song you’re writing.
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