Assonance, and the Art of Writing Lyrics
As most writers who have tried their hand at creating both song lyrics and poems know, there are considerable differences between the two art forms. For me, the poem is far more demanding (though some might disagree), due to the fact that it must contain everything within itself - whatever rhythm, whatever emotion, whatever imagery, whatever effect it wants to manifest. Lyrics, on the other hand, do not come alone. They come in the arms of music, which carries them, supports them, and fills them with its own, sometimes incredible power. Take the following lines:
I love you more than words can say
I love you more and more each day
I love you, I love you, hey
Please come home to me today.
As a poem, it doesn’t cut it. I mean, it would be nice on a Valentine’s Day card or something like that, but it would definitely meet a brutal fate if it were to fall into the wrong hands, and be read by someone (a critic, for example) who did not love one dearly. Don’t get me wrong. The artistic impulse, however unpolished it may be, is a beautiful thing and I wouldn’t trash the poet who wrote those lines, it’s just that as poetry, standing alone, it wouldn’t make much of an impact. Too direct, too flat, too cliché or expected, nothing to reveal the intensity of a feeling, or the strength of an emotion, nothing personal, no sign of inspiration. A poem that did not seem to be driven by anything deep or really wounded (even if it was).
As lyrics, however, these lines could achieve a totally different effect. They could be totally transformed. A haunting melody - or an expressive, soulful voice - could inject them with life and feeling, make them come alive, give them power. As lyrics, infused with the intensity of great music and a great interpretation, these four small lines could become something moving and deep, even make people cry.
Although many writers like Bono, Jewel, Alanis Morrisette, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan do construct lyrics that are interesting or even great in their own right, lots of song lyrics are really quite lame, when taken out of the context of their music: which is really not a criticism, since lyrics are NOT poems, exactly, and have a very different role to fulfill.
Something that I have found interesting is the fact that poetry, which began its life in complex rhyming and rhythmic structures (sonnets, quatrains, couplets, iambic pentameter, etc., etc.) - carrying, in that sense, its music with it - has gradually turned more and more to free verse, breaking out of its earlier forms, discarding rhymes and complex internal rhythms, and focusing more and more on metaphors, and perhaps some word-sound combinations, such as alliterations and assonance. You would think that poetry would wish to keep as much of its invisible music as possible. And yet, the modern poets have generally opted for freedom in its place, to liberate their work from forms that too often impeded them, and twisted the things they wanted to say in the effort to make them fit inside a rigid structure. As for the art of rhyming - that throwback to ancient days of epic poets, bards, and storytellers, whose memory was aided by the use of rhymes, which acted as thread binding a tale together - it is no longer needed by poetry, which has, essentially, become a written medium. (Even when it is "performed", it is most often read, not recited from memory.)
On the one hand, you would think that lyrics, being accompanied by music, would have less need for their own "internal music", and would, therefore, be even more willing than poems to surrender their rhyming structure. And yet, while poetry has essentially ditched the rhyme, the vast majority of song lyrics maintain them. Is this just attachment to convention (the last thing you would expect from "crazy musicians")!? Or does it come down to the fact that songs are art forms that are still "performed"; and that rhyming, therefore, continues to be of use to them?
Compare the two following sets of lines and see which is easier to remember:
I’ll walk down the road
I’ll walk down the street
I’ll say hello
to everyone I meet
I don’t care if I’m down
I don’t care if I’m sad
I won’t unjustly lash out
or treat anyone bad.
I’ll walk down the road
I’ll walk down the path
I’ll say hello
to whoever I come across
I don’t care If I’m down
I don’t care if I’m sad
I won’t unfairly take it out on others
or mistreat anybody.
Hopefully, you’ll agree that set I is easier to remember than set II, because of the rhymes and near-rhymes that guide the mind in its memory (the rhymes suggest what comes next and help to trigger memory associations. Even so, many singers, over time, have suffered from terrible fears that they might forget the lyrics of their songs, right in the middle of a big show! I guess they will want to keep rhymes in the business for some time!)
Since rhymes are still so important for lyrics-writing, it is not surprising that many aspiring lyricists and songwriters make an effort to master the art of rhyming, which is quite important. At first, the art seems to depend heavily upon one’s vocabulary - or even more than upon one’s vocabulary, upon one’s ability to "search" one’s mind and find the right word, which one is sure to know, but may not be able to "bring up" when it is needed. "I came to a fork in the road/and had to put down my pack." Scan the brains for something that fits and might rhyme: "Load." Good-bye "pack." That’s a matter of recall, sometimes abetted by investing in a "rhyming dictionary." (Sometimes abetted by time, as well, for the mind will often solve a problem like that - finding the right word - a few minutes, hours, or days after it has been set to the task. If musicians are trying to work up lyrics during a recording session, however, time may not be an option!)
Another key to rhyming - if the right word doesn’t seem to appear - is to rephrase the lines, maintaining the concept that they convey, but making them more "rhymable." For example: "I hate this life in which I’ve always struggled…" Supposing the intended meaning of the next line, which is supposed to rhyme, is "trying to win your love." You begin looking for a rhyme, and end up with whacked lines like: "trying to get close enough to snuggle"; "trying to stop my heart in your hands from being juggled." Time to back up. Get the word "struggled" out of there, it’s like a cork that won’t let anything else come out. End that line with an easier word for rhyming. Like: "I hate this life where I’ve fought so hard…", which lets you follow up with: "trying day and night to win your heart." (A near-rhyme, I’ll explain.) Or make the line be: "I hate this life, this pain, this fight", and follow it with, "why can’t you just say ‘Yes’, tonight?" Or make it be: "I hate this life, can’t take no more", and follow it up with "just standing here, outside your door." This is another crucial approach to rhyming. Flexibility in expressing a concept, to get around blockages.
But, far and away, the real superweapon of constructing "rhyming" lyrics is mastery of the concept of assonance - the art of the near-rhyme. Assonance describes the relationship between two words when they end with the same vowel sound, such as: "be" and "queen." These two words are not true rhymes, because their ending sounds are different - and yet, they are close enough to being rhymes, due to the shared long "e" sound in the last syllable, that they are able to effectively play the part of rhymes in lyrics.
Once a songwriter begins to exploit the potential of assonance - and many do so naturally - he vastly expands his rhyming vocabulary, providing himself with hugely increased flexibility in writing, and opening the door to greatly improved lyrics. Consider the following example. A line ends with the word "page."
Rhyming Possibilities: rage, age, sage, cage, stage, gauge, wage (perhaps a few more).
Near-Rhyming Possibilities Using Assonance: (All of the above, plus…) say, pay, hay, bay, day, ray, lay, way, weigh, may, stay, stray, tray (etc.) hate, gate, great, grate, late, fate, date, ate, mate, rate, wait, weight, slate (etc.) pain, rain, stain, reign, feign, brain, Cain, cane, gain, grain, lane, lain, mane, main, sane, insane, wane (etc.) lame, came, fame, frame, game, name, same, tame (etc.) aid, paid, raid, afraid, laid, obeyed, made, stayed, strayed, wade, weighed (etc.) praise, raise, raze, daze, days, phrase, phase, gaze, haze, maze, amaze, stays, pays, strays, (etc., etc.)
The advantage is clear. A working knowledge of "assonance" - by massively expanding the material you have available to work with - allows lyrics-writing to advance by a quantum leap!
A quick glance at the work of some renowned musicians demonstrates the key role played by assonance in professional quality lyrics:
From "Redemption Song", by Bob Marley
Old pirates, yes, they rob I,
Sold I to the merchant SHIPS
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless PIT…
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our MINDS,
Have no fear for atomic energy,
Cause none of them can stop the TIME…
From "Mr. Tambourine Man", by Bob Dylan
…Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen LEAVES,
The haunted, frightened TREES, out to the windy BEACH,
far from the twisted REACH of crazy sorrow…
(Note that Dylan also used the same "mind"/"time" assonance as Bob Marley in lines 1 and 2, and that "beach" and "reach", in lines 3 and 4, were true rhymes, in the midst of an assonating sequence. And, by the way, please don’t use the word "assonating", I just invented it now, it’s late!)
From "The Gallows Pole", a traditional British folk song, made famous by Led Zeppelin
Mother did you bring me silver,
Mother did you bring me GOLD,
Did you bring me anything
To keep me from the gallows POLE?
From "Wild Horses", by Mick Jagger, and Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones
Graceless lady, you know who I AM,
I just can’t let you slide through my HANDS…
I watched you suffer a dull aching PAIN
Now you’ve decided to show me the SAME…
From "Taxi", by Harry Chapin
And here, she’s acting happy,
Inside her handsome HOME.
And me, I’m flying in my taxi,
Taking tips, and getting STONED…
From "Smiling Faces Sometimes", as performed by the Undisputed Truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces
sometimes they don’t tell the TRUTH
Smiling faces, smiling faces
tell lies, and I got PROOF…
From "Born To Run", by Bruce Springsteen
In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American DREAM
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide MACHINES…
Baby this town rips the bones from your BACK
It’s a death TRAP, a suicide RAP
We gotta get out while we’re YOUNG
‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to RUN…
The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power DRIVE
Everybody’s out on the run TONIGHT
but there’s no place left to HIDE…
From "One", by U2’s Bono
Love is a temple
Love a higher law
Love is a temple
Love the higher LAW
You ask me to enter
But then you make me CRAWL…
And the technique cuts across cultures:
From "Arriba Quemando El Sol", by Violeta Parra
Cuando fui para la pampa
llevaba mi CORAZON
contento como un chirigue
pero alla se me MURIO;
primero perdi las plumas
y luego perdi la VOZ.
Y arriba quemando el SOL.
And that’s it. The empowering world of assonance, a word with an intriguing beginning, that just keeps getting better.
One final note - not to undo everything I have just written - but if worse comes to worst, just forget the rhyme (or the near-rhyme). No need to bend over backwards and become a human pretzel for one word. No rhyme is a hell of a lot better than a line that is way off balance, sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of your song, just to try to "make a rhyme" that isn’t really there. Lots of writers - even top ones - have skipped rhymes when necessary, not to mention some others (a minority) who don’t care about rhyming in the first place. Leaving out a rhyme is an omission that’s definitely survivable, though it should more often be the exception than the rule. (But then, who am I to say? It’s your art, and good music can blow us away even without words, so I really don’t see why lyrics that don’t rhyme couldn’t do quite well in many cases.)
Anyway, " ‘Nuff said."
For those of you who are into lyrics and songwriting, good luck! It’s a tough world out there, but keep your light shining, we all need it!
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