First the music, then the lyrics -- and make it rhyme!

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2007/09/29 16:01 -04:00, original URI:

The question I received the other day by email:

This is probably not your kind of question, but it has to do with music and with language so I decided it would be worth a try.

Why do song lyrics always have to rhyme when poetry doesn't?

Well, it is the kind of question I find interesting, though I suspect someone over on Language Log might be able to do more here with it than I could, since I'm not really sure.

I guess I could start with the throwaway answer -- that most poetry does tend to rhyme, as a part of the structure in which it sits. And even more throwaway that the vast majority of people seem to have no real knowledge of poetry that doesn't rhyme (or at least as familiar as they are with the rhyming sort!).

But obviously that says nothing, since we know that poetry that does not rhyme does in fact exist, even if it is less common. So what about songs?

Well, one could argue that songs with lyrics are not aimed at the crowd who would appreciate ones that do not rhyme. But that feels kind of throwaway too, doesn't it?

Now after talking to a lot of different singer/songwriters over the years and reading the words of even more in interviews, at least one relevant patterns seems to consistently come from damn near all of them:

When I think about poets who often don't rhyme and get away with it (e.g. Cummings, Eliot, Whitman, Pound) I also tend to see structure that is much more subtle (and I'll admit sometimes so subtle that I can't even discern it without reading someone else's analysis) and structures in songs certainly do not seem to be as deep within a single song.

I think about songs in movies or television shows from artists like Aimee Mann or Rachel Yamagata and the thing I am almost always struck by is that the themes in the lyrics of the song almost entirely fail to match what is going on in the movie or television program. Often the music fits, but the lyrics do not. and this makes a kind of sense since most people do not listen closely to the song lyrics while they are watching a movie or TV anyway (someone who was once watching me stay in a theater to watch for a song title after a movie pointed out to me that it takes a real "Dawson Leary" to stay and watch the credits, since nobody cares about that stuff).

So if in a different medium (where people ARE listening to the song) maybe they do only respond to where it is like in a club for dancing, in which case the same rules apply -- if the words are not important except a part of the structure so that there is no glaring break like couplets without a rhyme, then the only thing important to some listeners is in fact that they do rhyme.

When people choose to delight in random factoids like about Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop" was actually about masturbation and then closely listen to the lyrics to verify this, again they aren't thinking about the structure of them. When my ex-girlfriend's kids wore out a Jagged Little Pill CD by Alanis Morissette through continuous rewinding/replaying because "You Oughta Know" has the question "And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" while totally ignoring the perhaps equally suggestive earlier question "Would she go down on you in a theater?" it is again clear that the lyrics only reach the listener's notice in very bizarre circumstances.

Does 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" and it's "Hush hush, keep it down now, Voices Carry" line make more sense in it's original never released form (about a woman who is not out of the closet taking to task her female lover who is perhaps not to secretive) than in the song's released form (about a married man lecturing the woman with whom he is having an affair?). The reasoning behind a record label feeling more comfortable with the latter is depressingly obvious and is certainly a theme that more people can personally identify with, societal pressures being what they are, even if you ignore the fact that I am very far from ever being able to understand what it would feel like to be in the former. But most people never even read to deeply into the themes in the lyrics or even knew about the original lyrics, they just saw an MTV video (you know, back in the 80's when MTV used to have videos) and they just listened to the music, and of course the lyrics rhymed. Don't they all?

No one really knows what they are listening to in the music at a deep level, either -- who but a musician or an obsessed fan pays attention to what key the song is in? Or what chord progressions? Or whether the song is being driven on a bass or a guitar or a keyboard? Who but a Led Zeppelin fan knows about the unusual way that the guitars and the drums are playing to different beats and actually heard the difference before they read about John Bonham getting credit as a co-writer for the song for it? Almost no one....

We hear a generally pleasing structure and go with it.

Okay, maybe you see what I'm getting at. For most people lyrics are just another piece of the song like the meter, one that they do not listen to at a deep level. And it does not allow one the time to quietly contemplate like a poem does and to look for those deeper meanings that may be in the one that does not rhyme.

Maybe someone who is an accomplished poet or songwriter or linguist might have some slightly more elegant/organized/astute/accurate. Plus they might even spellcheck their result before they publish it. But I figure for a draft of an answer in a blog post, it'll do. :-)


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# John Cowan on 29 Sep 2007 11:50 PM:

I think that lyrics-irrelevant songs are a fairly new development: there are still plenty of kinds of music where the words matter quite a lot.  Before the Age of Rock, I can only think of opera as lyrics-irrelevant, and even opera makes plenty of sense if you understand Italian.  :-)  Folk songs, hymns, country songs, national anthems, protest songs: all those are full cooperations of lyric and melody, and if anything dominates, it's the lyric.  (The U.S. national anthem's melody is an old drinking song.)  And all of those descend from poetic traditions that use rhyme.

Of course, this is language-dependent: Irish uses assonance rather than rhyme in its traditional poetry, and likewise in traditional songs.  There are even songs with alternating lines in English and Irish; pairs of English lines rhyme, whereas pairs of Irish lines assonate, creating something very rich and strange.

And then there's "You Are My Sunshine", which dates to the 1940s and has a very traditional form, except the lines mostly don't rhyme -- though some do assonate.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 1 Oct 2007 1:16 AM:

Well, note that I'm not saying the lyrics are irrelevant per se; they are just not relevant in the places they are being used in movies and TV. The songs themselves often have meaning, but it takes somebody who is really paying attention (e.g. me) to be able to bother to notice that they songs often don't match where they are put....

I might have to give some examples to make this point more clearly, I think. :-)

Kevin Lucas on 29 Jul 2008 2:59 AM:

Woh this lyrice is very embllishing what  a great this song.

lucinda on 8 Oct 2008 8:28 AM:


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