Jonathan Feist

Why Rhyme? An Interview with Pat Pattison

Jonathan Feist


Pat Pattison was one of the founders of Berklee’s songwriting program, and he has mentored and inspired many thousands of songwriters at Berklee and all over the world—even before his 170,000 recent Coursera students! I’ve had the privilege to work with Pat on his Berklee Online courses, and it was a great pleasure to dig into his recent revised edition of his seminal book on rhyme, Songwriting: An Essential Guide to Rhyming, 2nd Edition. The first edition has been an extremely popular title for several decades. Now that Pat’s photo is on the cover, its sales promise to escalate dramatically. :) And the new content should help too….

Here’s my interview

…with Pat, for you.

Jonathan: Why rhyme?

Pat: Songs are made for ears, not eyes. Because people listen to songs, you learn to write for eyeless ears. Rhyme creates the ear’s roadmap through the lyric ideas. It tells your ear where to go next, what’s connected to what, and when to stop. It can tell you to speed up or slow down. It has a profound effect on the musical structure, either supporting melodic/harmonic motion, or creating a counter to it. It’s probably the most valuable tool in a lyricist’s tool belt.

What’s the relationship between rhyme and musical constructs, such as melody, harmony, and form?

Rhyme’s interactions with melody, harmony, and form create a plethora of creative possibilities. Foremost is rhyme’s capability of supporting melodic structures. When melodic phrases are connected, for example, having the same lengths, they invite rhyme to support their alliance. If rhyme accepts the invitation, there is a re-enforcement of the connection. When melodic phrases create a sequence—for example, long/short/long/short—they invite an ababrhyme scheme. Rhyming the sequence strengthens the motion.  If rhyme should decline melody’s invitation, or work against it, it’ll create tension, which can be quite fruitful in supporting unstable ideas.

Rhyme also works either as a companion or as a counter to harmony. Often a section will close with a rhyme, saying, “I’m finished,” while the harmony counters with a subdominant or dominant function, asking to move on. This division of labor creates two equal and important messages: “I’m finished with this idea, but there’s something else coming.”

You talk about different degrees of rhyming in your book, such as cat/hat vs. cat/hack or cat/sit. How are these different degrees of rhyming useful in terms of conveying an idea?

When you hit the tonic chord at the end of a section, you know you’re at a resting place. But, depending of how you voice the chord, you can create a more or less stable resting place. For example, voicing it with the 5 or the 3 on the bottom is less stable than voicing it with the root on the bottom.

Rhyme works like that too. A perfect rhyme (cat/hat) is fully resolved, like putting the root on the bottom. It stops motion fully and slams the gate shut. Cat/hack, because of the phonetic relation between and k, creates a pretty strong effect too, but not quite as strong as cat/hat. It allows you to expand your rhyme possibilities while still remaining pretty stable: cat/hack, cat/nap/ cat/sad, cat/grab.

As you move to less stable rhyme types, the rhyme will open the gate further, creating uncertainty and longing, potentially supporting the idea and emotion of the section, for example, cat/rats, cat/laugh, cat/spot. These could reverse the typical harmony/rhyme relationship: rather that the harmony asking for further motion while the rhyme stops, the harmony could stop (tonic) while the rhyme refuses to sit quietly, asking to move through the partly open sonic gate. So many interesting possibilities. And that’s what creativity is really about: options.

What are some of the common misconceptions that songwriters hold regarding rhyme?

Several. Most onerous, that all rhyme should be perfect rhyme. That’s like saying that every section should end on the tonic chord, voiced in root position. No one believes that, because it fails to create options. English has 17 vowel sounds. Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and many other languages have only 5. English doesn’t use the endings of words for grammatical purposes, unlike Italian, Spanish, German, etc. With so many vowel sounds and such inconsistency in the way words end, English is a “rhyme-poor” language. Depending only on perfect rhyme dramatically limits your ability to say what you mean and still rhyme.

The purveyors of perfect rhyme seem to believe in rules. I hate the phrase, “Learn the rules first so you’ll know how to break them.” It assumes that songwriting has rules. It doesn’t. It only has tools. Facts and tools.  Anytime you allow rules to steer your writing, you limit your options, thus limiting your creativity. Learn the rhyme types and their effects, then use them to support your ideas—to create emotion.

Secondly, that finding a rhyme is a creative act. It isn’t. Occasionally when I’ve asked writers what rhyming dictionary they use, some have been indignant, as though to say, “I don’t cheat. I’m self-sufficient.” Others have looked at me sadly, as if hoping that someday I will abandon my artificial crutch and get in touch with my creative inner self.

Use a rhyming dictionary. This is one place where self-reliance and rugged individualism are silly. Finding rhymes is almost never a creative act. It’s a purely mechanical search. On those few occasions where finding a rhyme is creative (finding mosaic rhymes, for example), a rhyming dictionary can still stimulate the creative process.

The self-reliant writer who thinks rhyming is a spontaneous expression of personal creativity can usually be seen gazing into space, lost somewhere in the alphabet song, “discovering” one-syllable words. This “alphabet process” is certainly at least as artificial as a rhyming dictionary. Nothing about it is creative or pure, nor is it spontaneous. The worst part is its inefficiency.

Can rhyme sometimes be detrimental to a lyric?

Rhyme isn’t detrimental. It’s your friend. It’s a great brainstorming tool. I go into great detail in the new edition of The Essential Guide to Rhyming how to use your rhyming dictionary to explore a song idea. It’s called a worksheet. Sondheim does it. So does Eminem. So should you.

Not understanding what your options are, or following the “rule” of perfect rhyme can be detrimental. It can lead you into saying something stupid because “Well, I needed a rhyme.” Or it can lead you into writing clichés: love/above, fire/desire, hand/understand, eyes/realize.

Neither are what you really meant to say or could have said if you hadn’t been strait-jacketed by perfect rhyme.

What advice do you give your students that commonly leads them to make significant songwriting breakthroughs?

Create worksheets. Spend time up front exploring the “sonic landscape” of your idea. When you use your rhyming dictionary in advance of writing, you’re work on two levels simultaneously: you’re finding ideas, and with them, ideas that connect sonically.

Contemporary poetry often doesn’t rhyme. Do you think that’s positive, do you think rhyme is more important in music than in poetry, and why?

Because we can see lines on a page, poetry is able to counterpoint line against phrase. Because we only hear songs, the marriage of musical phrase with lyric phrase is essential.

Poetry uses two fundamental units of composition: the grammatical phrase (tied to meaning) and the line (independent of meaning). It is made for the eye, as well as the ear. It is a poetry of both lines and phrases.

These two fundamental units of composition for a poem—the grammatical phrase and the line—are both dependent on the page. Because a song lyric is directed to the ear, rhyme is important since it provides a roadmap for the ear, by showing relationships between lines, creating forward motion, creating either stability or instability in sections, and telling the ear where sections end.

Though rhyme is common in poetry, it is less important, since the reader can see where a line or a section ends. Even when poems rhyme, they don’t necessarily announce a phrase’s end or a section’s end, as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”:

  O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,

  Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

  Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

  Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

Can you point us to performances of some of your favorite songs that have particularly interesting rhyming, and tell us what to listen for?

“Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor for verse abba rhyme scheme. There’s a huge difference between

There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,

waiting for summer, his pastures to change


 There is a young cowboy, he lives on the range.

His horse and his cattle are his only companions.

He’s waiting for summer, his pastures to change

He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons,

Also notice the prechorus’s ababb rhyme scheme.

Randy Newman’s “Feels Like Home” for its rhyme types in the two prechoruses.

Warren Zevon’s “Hasten Down the Wind” for use of consonance rhyme in the chorus (performed here by Linda Rondstadt).

Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.