Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Case For Imperfect Rhyme

Hey there 5 followers!

Hope all is well with you.

This week, I've been reading more of Jimmy Webb's book on songwriting, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. I'm reading it slowly and carefully, because I figure the guy who wrote "The Highwayman" has a lot of stuff to teach me. In my third week, I have reached chapter 3 (I told you I was reading slow).  Chapter 3 is titled "It's Only Words," and he walks us through the Jimmy Webb process for crafting a lyric.

He starts with how he decides on a title that's worth writing about. Then he moves to a discussion of  how he chooses a theme that best illustrates the sentiment of the title. In short order, he enters into a narrative about the different types of rhyming dictionaries and how to use them. Not long after that, in my opinion, he jumps the shark and starts into a section where he calls the imperfect rhyme a "mistake" and goes on to analyze some of the songs he has written, that in his estimation contain "mistakes." Apparently, Mr. Webb thinks imperfect rhymes are lazy and base, and he considers those that rigidly adhere to perfect rhymes to be  True Artists.

I disagree. I'd like to outline why I think imperfect rhymes are perfectly legitimate, and why Jimmy Webb should lighten up.

The Definition of Rhyme

While most dictionaries would define "rhyme" as words that share the same ending sounds, I would define rhyme a little less strictly. I'd say that two words rhyme if their final vowel sound is the same.
This is where we get into tricky territory. Mr. Webb contends that his rhyme
I love you more than want you
and I want you for all time
and  the Wichita Lineman
is still on the line a mistake, because he should have come up with a perfect rhyme for "line."

I would argue that it does rhyme, for the following reasons:

1. The words "time" and "line" share the long "i" vowel sound
2. The final consonant sound in each of these words belongs to the "Voiced Nasal Consonant" family of articulation.

I would say that because the vowel sound is the same, and that the ending consonant sound is closely related, they create the impression of a rhyme in the listener....and that's the POINT.  You want the words to have the FUNCTION of a rhyme, even if they do not strictly adhere to an archaic definition.

In the same chapter, Mr. Webb rightly tells us to avoid cliche rhymes like the plague, a sentiment I agree with. If we must adhere to his rigid rhyming guidelines, how are we ever going to rhyme "heart" without landing on a cliche?

According to Mr. Webb, this line from Don Schlitz and Paul Overstreet would be frowned upon:
It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart
Without saying a word you can light up the dark
So, I guess because the perfect rhymes for the word "heart" have been used so much,  "heart" is off-limits to serious songwriters for the duration of the life of the universe.

NO! I think most people writing songs today, and making money doing it, are using imperfect rhymes all the time to make their songs better and to avoid the dreaded cliche rhymes.

Rhyming As Cadence

There are other, more calculating reasons to use perfect and imperfect rhymes to advance an over arching feeling in your song.

Perfect rhymes can be used to emphasize a feeling stability, "landing on your feet," if you will.

But sometimes, at the end of a phrase, you don't want the feeling to be stable, you want instability to reign. This is the place for the imperfect rhyme. and the less perfect the rhyme, the more unstable the feeling.


The sky was rolling, turning black
you kept the driver from turning back


The sky was rolling, turning black
the waves were crashing on the deck

The perfect rhyme seems more stable to me...the imperfect rhyme seems to magnify the anxiety in the situation.

Try it, see if you can use perfect and imperfect rhyme with INTENT to give the right feelings of stability  and instability to your songs.

This Week:

Harry Nilsson
Jimmy Webb
David Wilcox

Also still in the midst of the new recording project!

You should really buy Jodi Ann's latest album, "A Brief Moment in Time." I co-produced, edited, arranged, mixed, and played all the instruments. You can download the digital version here:, or you can email her to purchase a physical cd:

....oh, and there's this: could donate so I can afford a neck! ;-)

1 comment:

  1. Either turn around and flee,
    or stay forever and marry me!