Rhyme Families: Your Secret Weapon

Using rhyme families effectively can help you not only move through a song, but add nuances to the rhythm, melody and feel or tone imparted.

The goal is to find rhymes that don’t sound awkward, like “with love I swing for the fences/when I see you it all commences;” or too simple, like “every time it snows/I have to blow my nose.”

(That’s a favorite of my songwriting partner. She’s in charge of the music).

Anyway – one of the best things I ever did was take a poetry writing class for forms. Forms are things like sonnets, terza rimas, villannelles, and all kinds of wondrous metered rhyme schemes. While the class was difficult (I write in free verse), it opened my eyes to how and why rhyme works within the language as a vehicle to help shape the meaning of a poem – or in our case – a song.

FREE Rhyme Families Chart

Get this handy explanation and chart to keep in your backpack.

And, because you’re forced to find both meter and rhyme that works for the poem, i.e., what it wants to be, and not for you as the writer, you often discover a whole new perspective on your original idea. Which is why writing of any kind is exciting!

There are two types of rhymes: perfect rhyme and imperfect rhyme or family rhymes (aka rhyme families).

Perfect rhymes are words whose: (1) syllable vowel sounds are the same, (2) consonant sounds after the vowels are the same if there are any, and (3) the sounds before the vowels are different. Example: snow, blow or dependent, evident.

Imperfect rhymes, or a family rhymes / rhyme families, are words whose: (1) syllable vowel sounds are the same, (2) consonant sounds after the vowels belong to the same phonetic family, and (3) the sounds before the vowels are different. Example: snow, nose or break, cage.

Using Rhyme Families When You Write

So how did I know a “g” could be substituted for a “k”? Consonants in language are broken into four groups:

  1. plosives, are stop consonants or explosions of sound, like drums if you think of a noise component in music (b d g t);
  2. fricatives, which are like shakers (v z);
  3. sibilants, which are like cymbals and sound like a hissing noise (f th s); and
  4. nasals, which resonate from the nasal cavity (m n ng).

If you were to put the consonants in a chart to help you navigate the rhyming families, it would look like this:

            Plosives      Fricatives      Nasals
Voicedb d g     v TH z zh j     m  n  ng
Unvoicedp t q k     f th s sh ch

The easiest way to use the chart is to first look up a perfect rhyme in your rhyming dictionary, and then move to the sounds within the same family.

FREE Rhyme Families Generator Worksheet

Get this step-by-step worksheet to help you generate unique rhymes for every song.

So, if you have an end consonant of “b,” a voiced plosive, once you’ve tried “d” and “g” as an end consonant, move to the unvoiced plosives. The closer you stay to the family you started in, the better the rhyme will sound – i.e., not forced.

A recommended rhyming dictionary is “The Complete Rhyming Dictionary,” edited by Clement Wood (and recommended by Jimmy Webb himself). You’ll get a great overview of meter/rhythm as well as an overview of the types of rhyme in the forward.

Pat Pattison’s book “Songwriting: Essential Guide to Rhyming” is also a great source for a detailed study of rhyme. The book includes exercises around the sound chart and dives into devices like internal rhyme, alliteration and assonance. A “must have” on your bookshelf in my opinion.

More online tools for rhyming

To hear close rhyme and clever rhyme schemes done well with strong lyrics/words, listen to any Brandy Clark song. She is THE MASTER of finding surprising but not overly contrived words to bring life and character to her songs.

“Mama’s Broken Heart” Lyrics

Mastering rhyme will open up how you approach a song, and lead you to a richer songwriting experience.

Another great example of a unique rhymer – Kacey Musgraves and her close rhyme in “Merry Go ‘Round”

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