Are Inconsistent Rhyme Schemes Destroying Your Songs?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Pages of an Isaac Watts hymnal from 1824Inconsistent rhyme scheming is one of the biggest mistakes that songwriters make. When you begin a song, you establish a contract with your listeners — you make certain promises. In this case, the rule is:

Whatever end-rhyme pattern you establish in the first verse must remain through subsequent verses.

Of course rules are made to be broken. As with any “songwriting rule,” if you search long enough you’ll see examples of good songs from good songwriters that disobey form. But for every example of a rulebreaking song that succeeds, there are 100 that dash themselves upon proverbial rocks by not following through with the promises made to their listeners.

So What Is A Rhyme Scheme?

It’s the pattern of rhymes in a song (and for the most part we mean end rhymes – rhymes at the end of lines). Augustus M. Toplady uses ABAB rhyme scheme in the hymn “A Debtor To Mercy Alone.” Watch:

The terrors of law and of God (A)
With me can have nothing to do; (B)
My Savior’s obedience and blood (A)
Hide all my transgressions from view. (B)

He rhymes “God/blood” on lines 1 and 3, and “do/view” on lines 2 and 4.

ABAB is a popular rhyme scheme because it encourages us to see each quatrain/verse as a complete unit of thought. Kristen and I often use this rhyme scheme, such as on our modern hymn “Rising Tide.” And we use a modified version (ABCB) in “You Grew The Tree”:

“And then Lord, by Your Word (A)
Appeared each form of life (B)
And in Your image Adam came, (C)
And from him came a wife … (B)

As you can see, we only rhyme the even-numbered lines instead of ending the third line with a rhyme for “Word,” hence ABCB rather than ABAB. This is a popular variation because it frees the writer to concentrate on things like plot, theme and metaphor instead of being too beholden to rhyme, but it still provides rhyme where listeners most expect it.

Next to ABAB and its variant ABCB, the most popular rhyme scheme is AABB. It’s probably most popular among beginners, because of its prevalence in children’s poetry and greeting cards. When a poet ends his first line, it feels natural to immediately find a word that will end the next line with a rhyme.

The problem is that this can encourage writers to put too much emphasis on rhyming and not enough on developing a sustained thought or story over multiple lines. This can lead to songs that are more like a series of individual two-line platitudes than a compelling narrative or exposition. Nevertheless, many great hymns of the faith and other songs use AABB well. See Charles Wesley’s classic Christmas carol:

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (A)
Glory to the newborn King (A)
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, (B)
God and sinner reconciled (B)

Kristen and I used AABB on “My Song In The Night”:

O Jesus my Savior, my song in the night, (A)
A servant by choice, but a king by all rights. (A)
In Your darkest hour, I could not stay awake, (B)
But still you pressed on to the cross for my sake. (B)

Now I Know What You Mean By Rhyme Scheme. What Is The Problem?

The problem comes when you mix your schemes — for instance writing ABAB on the first verse and AABB on the second. You’ve broken contract with your listener by not delivering what she has come to expect. This is jarring. Most will probably not recognize that you’ve switched to a different rhyme scheme; they will just notice that something is amiss.

If you read my songwriting analysis of Isaac Watts’s Maundy Thursday/Good Friday hymn Twas On That Dark, That Doleful Night, you’ll remember that even the great Watts mixed his rhyme scheme for two verses of this 7-verse song before switching back to his original scheme. Remember also that hardly anyone knows or sings this hymn, unlike Watts songs like “Joy To The World” (ABABBB)  or “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” (ABAB) where he keeps his rhyme scheme consistent from verse to verse.

Also remember the reason I listed for Watts’s change in rhyme scheme for two verses.

“These two verses are a parenthetical — a step outside of the timeline of this hymn (Maundy Thursday) and into the near future (Good Friday) before returning to the Upper Room in verse six. Changing the rhyme scheme helps identify the parenthetical and sharpen our focus.”

So Do It When You Have A Good Reason, And Be Aware of The Consequences

Changing the rhyme scheme can work if you want to set one section off from others — if you want to intentionally jar your listeners. In modern song constructs, this might be a good idea for a bridge, pre-chorus or chorus. For instance, let your ABABCDCD verse give way to an AABB chorus.

The consequence — particularly if you change rhyme schemes from one verse to the next — is that people may not understand or accept your reason for changing. They will just notice something is amiss, and hit “track skip.” You have been warned.

You’ve Mentioned A Few Rhyme Schemes. Any Others?

Plenty. Want a great songwriting mechanics exercise? Just study your favorite songs and pick out their rhyme schemes on your own.

On mine and Rebecca Elliott’s “All I Have Is Yours,” we used ABABCCCB, one of my favorites:

Creator, giver of all things, (A)
All I have is Yours (B)
Accept my humble offering: (A)
All I have is Yours; (B)
When I was chained to greed and pride, (C)
Tight-fisted, destined just to die (C)
You paid my debt and bought my life, (C)
All I have is Yours. (B)

You will occasionally run across:

  • AAAA — the danger here is that so many rhymes in a row may create a childish sing-song effect. Hip hop writers often pull this scheme off better than pop or country songwriters.
  • ABBA — the danger here is people may not even realize you’re rhyming lines 1 and 4, if your lines are too long and your rhymes are too weak. Short lines and strong rhymes can make this scheme fly.

Despite the dangers, plenty of songs have used those schemes successfully.

Search your hymnal and the liner notes of your favorite records. You’ll discover other rhyme schemes as well. When you’re in a songwriting rut, challenge yourself to write a song using a scheme you’ve never used before. It may become your best song ever. In any event, it will stretch you in new directions.



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