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The Evolution Of Rhyme

When I heard Taylor Swift’s single ‘Gorgeous’ (video below) the first thing I noticed was the almost complete lack of ‘true’ rhymes. Rhyming has gotten much looser in recent years, for some very good reasons, but this is an extreme example. And since it was written by experienced songwriters Swift and hit-making monsters Max Martin and Shellback, it’s safe to assume it wasn’t an accident.

A ‘true’ rhyme is when the last syllable of two words (usually the last, but not always) match exactly, except for the preceding consonant (if there is one). Examples of ‘true’ rhymes: town/down, girl/pearl, fair/air.

It’s actually kind of hard for a songwriter to avoid true rhymes. First of all, they have their own kind of impact, which ‘false’ rhymes don’t duplicate. But also, when you’ve written a lot of songs they tend to come out naturally.

Recently, however, ‘false’ rhymes are increasingly common, displacing the dominance of ‘true’ rhymes which, through most of the 20th century, ruled the roost. Examples of ‘false’ rhymes: town/around, girl/world, fair/airs. The vowel sound is the same but the end of the words are different.

‘Gorgeous’ is a strong statement relative to this trend, planting a flag by so purposefully staying away from ‘true’ rhymes. And with songwriters of this stature, it’s worth paying attention.

To give an example, here’s how the song starts (remember that spelling has nothing to do with rhyming – only sound counts) –

You should take it as a compliment
That I got drunk and made fun of the way you talk
You should think about the consequence
Of your magnetic field being a little too strong

Here, ’compliment’ rhymes with ‘consequence’  and ‘talk’ rhymes with ‘strong’. This sets the the table for the rest of the song, which rhymes us/what/much; gorgeous/furious; her/worse/hurts; mine/might/die. The vowel sounds rhyme, but nothing else.

There are two exceptions in the song. One feels purposeful; it’s in the last lines before the Title repeat at the end of the Chorus –

At you for making me feel this way
But what can I say
You’re gorgeous

If a song were to have only one ‘true’ rhyme, this spot, setting up the last Title, is the second most obvious and effective place for it (the first would be the rhyming the Title itself, but in this case… ‘Gorgeous‘ would be tough to rhyme… and then some…).

In the Bridge there’s also a true rhyme that feels almost incidental –

You make me so happy, it turns back to sad, yeah
There’s nothing I hate more than what I can’t have
You are so gorgeous it makes me so mad
You make me so happy, it turns back to sad, yeah
There’s nothing I hate more than what I can’t have
Guess I’ll just stumble on home to my cats
Alone, unless you wanna come along, oh

Sad/have/mad/sad/have/cats’ There is ‘sad/mad’ in there, a ‘true’rhyme, but it’s just another rhyme in a string of them and not used to any particular effect (unlike the Chorus ‘true’ rhyme).

It’s always important to remember that the whole idea of rhyme, the whole idea of anything that’s part of music, is sound. Words go together well not just for their literal meaning, but for how they sound, which has a (non-literal) meaning too. So as music changes, as technology changes, as what we’re used to changes, of course rhyme evolves too.

For further thoughts on this and for some reasons behind the radical evolution, over the last few decades, of rhyme, click here.

Let me know your thoughts, additions, disagreements in the Comments section below:

swift martin shellback


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14 responses to “The Evolution Of Rhyme”

  • Tony – great article. Songwriters today are not doing tight rhymes or pure rhymes because they are boring! As you teach when you use Eminem as an example of a brilliant rhymer, rappers are really brilliant at making words or word combinations rhyme. Kelsea Ballerini in her new brilliant song Music sings “Before i knew your love, even with the volume up, it was silent then, now you walkin in the room, all kinda smooth, like a violin.

    Knew your love – volume up
    Room – Smooth
    Silent then – violin
    (the songwriters of this song even posted on Instagram #whatrhymeswithviolin?) kind of an inside joke from the experience.

    Thanks for the Taylor Swift Max Martin Shellback update!

    Scott Forman

  • Tony, thanks for the thoughtful article. Here’s the way I’ve been thinking lately, right or wrong: rhymes are a tool in the writer’s shed. False rhymes work differently than true rhymes. A false rhyme can be like closing the door softly, while a true rhyme can be like slamming it. And the combination (per your article) can make a point; if a true rhyme follows a string of false rhymes, it can indicate that these lines are a more important statement than what preceded.

    My strong belief is that in songwriting (as you’ve written previously), there are no rules, only tools. Rhyme is a flexible and extraordinarily useful implement. The effects can be subtle, but a good writer studies them and knows how to apply them. Fast, loose, rap-style rhyming is different from elegant, careful Tin Pan Alley-style rhyming. Each elicits a specific, intentional response. Neither is better than the other, just as a hammer isn’t better than a lathe.

  • Hey Tony.

    Thanks for the interesting piece.

    Perhaps a more accurate title would have been “The De-evolution of Rhyme.” To me, a false rhyme indicates laziness on the part of the writer. There’s a real delight in a rhyme that manages to break new ground in trueness, like “rinky dinky/Helsinki”. Or consider Roger Miller from the song “Dang Me”:

    Roses are red and violets are purple
    Sugar is sweet and so is maple surple

    He takes a cliché and turns it sideways, then throws in a non-sense word. Completely destroys our expectations and head fakes a seemingly boring beginning into a snicker-worthy gem of a couplet.

    I don’t think that kind of pleasure from a parlor trick with true rhyme can ever be matched by a false (or slant) rhyme. But I am willing to be pleasantly surprised if you have any compelling examples.


    1. Robert Berardi

      Totally agree!

    2. Nicolas Derome

      I find it easier to think of true rhymes than false ones, especially if the false rhymes uses a different letter for the vowel (that is nonetheless pronounced the same). False rhymes also seem like a sneakier way to make lyrics sound good together. I find that they’re less blatantly noticeable, they just sound good and you don’t know why if you’re just listening casually and not trying to carefully analyze the songwriting.

  • David Forman

    I once had the pleasure of writing a musical promo for Frankie Day, the Pittsburgh rock n roll deejay, who asked if I could include his sidekick, Caveman Ralph. Being ever eager to please, I included this:

    Yours in rhyme and raisin,

    David Forman

  • Robert Berardi

    Yes, I think it started with rap. Eminem & Kendrick are amazing: they use imperfect rhymes mainly for internal rhymes, like jabs setting up their perfect rhyme haymakers. But I don’t think the pop songs & trap songs that have adopted imperfect rhymes are that artful. So I agree with Burnley: it’s a de-evolution. Look at Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill”… It’s a likable enough song, but I literally can’t find the rhymes. And it’s not like Cheap Trick’s anti-rhyme punk stance “Surrender”; something different is going on. I honestly think it’s a dumbing down. Not that Ed or Tay Tay are stupid; I just think that their demographic (i.e., Millennials) doesn’t value the cleverness of Broadway/ folk craft, so they write imperfect rhymes and go, “Eh, good enough.”

  • Robert Berardi

    Interestingly, rhymezone, the top online rhyming dictionary, offers “near rhymes”, but it’s the end consonants that are the same while the vowel sounds are different!

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