There’s something about rhymes that makes them enjoyable to listen to. Is it the human brain releasing positive chemicals in response to identifying a pattern? Or is it the ineffable beauty of two seemingly unrelated words joined together by the random fate of language? Either way, rhyming is central to music and poetry, and different types of rhyme affect us in varied ways.
The ubiquity of rhyming may be slightly more recent than you’d expect. The earliest written rhyming poem that we know of appears in the seventh century BCE Book of Songs, a collection of poetry compiled in China. It would take even longer for rhyming to enter the English poetic tradition. A 10th century Old English poem called The Rhyming Poem is one of the earliest examples, standing out because until then, English poetry mostly relied on “alliterative verse.” That means in old poems including Beowulf, alliteration was the main method used to connect sounds. While it’s not rhyming as we usually think of it today, the use of alliteration can also be called a “head rhyme.”
That said, rhyme has by now become integral in the English tradition, even if there’s plenty of poetry that doesn’t use rhyme at all. Not every rhyme is built the same way, however. There are various types, which are deployed in a multitude of ways. Some have argued that certain types of rhyme are “better” than others, but they’re all important parts of music and literature.
Types Of Rhyme
An identity rhyme is when a word is rhymed with itself, or with a word that sounds exactly the same (though the latter is sometimes called a “rich rhyme”). For many, it’s considered a lesser kind of rhyme, but it’s also not uncommon. If you’re paying close attention to lyrics, hearing an identity rhyme can hit you like a note played incorrectly. Even the most accomplished poets and musicians might resort to it from time to time, however. Take, for example, these lines from The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.”
Hey Jude, don’t make it bad,
Take a sad song, and make it better,
Remember to let it into your heart,
Then you can start to make it better.
The gold standard of rhyming is the perfect rhyme, also called an exact rhyme, a true rhyme or a full rhyme. A perfect rhyme is usually two non-identical words that are the same length and…well…rhyme (have the same vowel and ending consonant sound). Cat and hat, dock and rock, and so on. It doesn’t have to be single words, also. “Ratchet” and “catch it” can be considered a perfect rhyme. There are an extraordinary number of examples to choose from for this type of rhyme, so let’s go with one you’ve probably heard of before.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
When a rhyme isn’t quite perfect, it’s a slant rhyme, a near rhyme, an imperfect rhyme, an approximate rhyme or, for the ruder sort, a lazy rhyme. These are rhymes that don’t match perfectly, but share enough vowels and consonants to resemble each other. Slant rhymes allow a writer to have a much larger number of words to choose from. While they’re called “lazy,” many — if not all — rhymers resort to them once in a while. They can even be necessary. The word “orange,” which famously doesn’t have a perfect rhyme, can only be used with slant rhymes. Despite that, rapper Eminem has used “orange” many times, like in “Brainless.”
Take some inventory,
In this gourde,
There’s a Ford engine,
An extension cord
And a Ninja sword.
An eye rhyme is when two words look like they might rhyme, but they do not. Words like “wind” and “bind,” “through” and “trough,” and any number of other pairs have endings spelled the same way, but very different pronunciations. Notably, this phenomenon is more common in certain languages than others, because some, like English, have more varied pronunciations of their letters than other languages like Spanish. Eye rhymes tend to be in poetry more often than music, like in William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Another thing to note about eye rhymes is that sometimes a rhyme depends on a person’s accent. The word “vase,” for example, might rhyme with “base” to an American but with “cause” to a Brit. Thus, one person’s eye rhyme is another person’s perfect rhyme.
The word “masculine rhyme” is connected with the concept of a “masculine ending,” which is when a line of poetry ends on a stressed syllable. There are some sexist implications at play in the naming of this type of rhyme, of course; ending on a stressed syllable was considered “manly” or something along those lines. When the last syllable of two lines are stressed, then it’s only that syllable that matters when rhyming. For this example, we can look at Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love,” which uses slant rhymes and perfect rhymes at the end of her lines to create masculine rhymes.
I look and stare so deep in your eyes
I touch on you more and more every time
When you leave, I’m begging you not to go
Call your name two, three times in a row
In contrast to a masculine ending, a feminine ending is when the stressed syllable comes before the end of a line. This makes feminine rhymes more difficult, because to sound right, you need something to rhyme starting at the last stressed syllable of a line and extending to the end. You can’t rhyme “quotient” and “patient,” for instance, because the stressed syllables — “quo” and “pa” — don’t rhyme. The chorus from Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” makes good use of the feminine rhyme, where the stress falls on the second to last syllable.
So you’re a tough guy
Like it really rough guy
Just can’t get enough guy
Chest always so puffed guy
Sometimes, a stressed syllable is rhymed with an unstressed syllable, which forms a light rhyme or a wrenched rhyme. Two lines of a poem might end with “nets” and “carpets,” which forces the reader or singer to pronounce “carpets” with extra stress on the last syllable, as in car-PETS. The “wrench” of wrenched rhyme refers to this forced shifting of stress. This is not an ideal rhyme and is fairly rare, but it happens every once in a while.
The end rhyme is, as the name implies, a rhyme that falls at the end of a line. Every example we’ve dealt with so far has been an end rhyme, making it one of the most common types of rhyme. Nevertheless, we’ll give another example, from Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” You can also note that these are masculine rhymes.
See how I’ll leave with every piece of you
Don’t underestimate the things that I will do
There’s a fire starting in my heart
Reaching a fever pitch and it’s bring me out the dark
An internal rhyme is when words rhyme within the lines of a song. Not every musician uses internal rhymes regularly, and it’s more important in some genres than others. Many rappers use internal rhyme quite a bit, and being able to incorporate lots of internal rhymes, particularly off the cuff, is a difficult skill. An example of this feat from 1987 is Eric B. & Rakim’s “Eric B. is President.” Take just the first four lines.
I came in the door, I said it before
I never let the mic magnetize me no more
But it’s biting me, fighting me, inviting me to rhyme
I can’t hold it back, I’m looking for the line
While we might think of “rhyme” as a mere fact of language, it’s worth paying attention to in music. Many of the best musical artists experiment with rhyme, along with other literary features, and are doing innovative things with it all the time. There’s a lot of thought that goes into finding rhyming words and phrases that match the feelings and sentiments an artist wants to express, and plenty of division over “good” and “bad” rhymes. If anything, learning about the different types of rhyme should help you appreciate a well-written song even more than you already do.