Why do modern songs have rhymes, while modern poetry doesn’t?

September 27, 2022 • 9:15 am

A while back I claimed that nearly all poetry I like has rhymes in it, and that excludes nearly all poetry written in the last several decades. I got, as expected, considerable disagreement in the comments, but that’s fine because this is a matter of taste. Several readers argued that modern free verse still has an appealing musicality—a musicality that doesn’t need rhymes. 

I was thinking about this as I lay awake at 3 a.m. last night (I got about 2 hours of sleep, oy), and thought, “Well, if modern poetry has morphed into a genre that doesn’t need rhyme, but is still a form of written music, and is regarded as artistry, can modern music itself get away without rhymes? (I’m thinking here of rock and pop music, but I expect that the generalization extends to country music, gospel, Broadway music, and other genres.)

And, try as I might, I could not think of a single popular song that doesn’t have rhymes in it.  I started with Bob Dylan (remember, this is 3 a.m. and I was trying to distract myself); and, running through his songs in my mind, I couldn’t think of one that didn’t have rhymes. (Regarding today’s “youth” music, I’m abysmally ignorant of much of it.)

But poetry in English started losing its rhymes with Walt Whitman, proceeding through e. e. cummings and Seamus Heaney (not all of his), so free verse has been going for over a century. Yet music certainly hasn’t aped poetry in this respect.

So I can think of no rhymeless music. I’m sure that readers can trawl up a song or two without rhymes, but I’m making a general claim. Now why is this the case? if poems, which lack a tune, can still be musical without rhymes, why can’t music itself, which does have tunes, be musical without rhymes?

In other words, what is it about music that demands that it rhymes before it can be satisfying? Is there some required association between a genuine tune and rhymes? Perhaps you have a theory that is yours.

Here’s my favorite “modern” show tune: “Send in the Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote both the lyrics and music for the play A Little Night Music. It’s an “intellectual” Broadway song, and I’d expect that if any songwriter could abjure rhyme and still be successful, it would be Sondheim.  But sure enough, this one rhymes, just like his most popular lyrics—those from West Side Story.

Here’s the most famous version, by Judy Collins, and the rhymes are palpable.

By the way, Sondheim regarded this song as a quickly written “throwaway piece”—something I don’t understand given its beauty and melancholy.

I’ve added another Sondheim song (music by Leonard Bernstein) from “West Side Story,” a song that might not be expected to rhyme. But it does.  Here’s Barbra Streisand singing it live. It’s a lovely song, and the best among many good ones from that musical. (I’ve said many times that Barbra Streisand and Karen Carpenter had the most beautiful female voices of our time; but Judy Collins is up there, too.)

59 thoughts on “Why do modern songs have rhymes, while modern poetry doesn’t?

    1. I had to sit thru a long car ride where the driver insisted on playing current pop music. Besides the absolute minimal use of instruments (all done by noodling with one or two fingers on a computer), was the sheer sameness. The sameness of a particular scratchy plink-a-plink-a beat especially, in numerous different songs by different vocalists. I wonder if kids even know what they are missing?

  1. I’m tempted to reply: “Because modern music strives to be commercially successful, whereas modern poetry doesn’t”.

    [Though Pearl Jam’s “Ten” is an example of a commercially successful album where the lyrics don’t rhyme, striving instead to capture raw, teenage-boy authenticity. ]

    1. You would be right on the spot. But that would need, in my opinion, some historical explaning to do. What follows is my own hypotesis, as far as I know. And sorry for the long story:

      Poetry indeed, in the form or versified and rhymed text was maybe the first literary “genre”. Both the Illiad and The odissey, and I would risk to say any ancient “written” story or text were meant to be widely circulated, and that meant to be mainly recited, for which thet needed to be memorized, for which was convenient for them to be rhymed and versified. Thus, poetry was more a conduit for the literary (epic, love…) genres than a genre in itself.

      Ancient poetry, with time, split in the two art forms that we today call poetry and songs. First it became a genre in itself (mostly, but not only romantic poetry) and at the same time, in some way, is still a conduit, and second it became, well, songs.

      Poetry developed earlier, linked to means of puting it in writing, say the printing press, it became an written art instead of a oral art. This meant it had to rely less on rhyme (and verse) and opened, but not forced, the way to get rid of them.

      Song, on the other hand, could not have the same posibilities of development until the XIX-XX centuries, with the development of sound recording and playing technologies. Along, song kept relying in rhyme and versification as it kept being oraly played, and heard.

      At this point, being already two separte form of art, arises a necessity of distinguishing from each other: You need to learn an ability to enjoy poetry, reading, and you need also to take an active role, also reading. With song you only need to listen.
      This makes poetry a more “cultivated and elevated” art, song being a “popular” one.

      Poets got used to not rely on a wide public thus not depending on general tastes; rhyme (and verse) became vulgar, “easy tricks”, and as we saw, they were already for some time not so neccessary. It got used to not strive for commercial success.

      Song, on the other hand, being more popular, and depending on being so as it became more and more (way more than poetry) a marketeable product, needed to be catchy and so to rhyme. Also, as it is united to music, needed more versification. You guessed, it got used to strive for commercial succes.

      1. Poetry is the literary form with the starkest decline. It no longer gets used to convey anything of importance, because there are better alternatives now. This is not unlike the decline of plays and operas, which were once used to convey important ideas but became largely obsolete through the invention of film.

      1. There is little point in playing word games over the scope of meaning of
        “song”. I agree with you if you restrict the definition of “song” to a standalone piece of music.

    1. Classical audiences can overlap with pop music audiences but I’m pretty sure they largely have distinct preferences from each other.

      Also, what material is _new_? Pop music is produced like pancakes. What does the classical audience look for? I’m personally enjoying old stuff – it was written 100’s of years ago in Italian or German. Occasionally Ades – but are his vocal parts in English?

  2. There are definitely quite a few Radiohead songs which don’t have obvious rhymes, and they are at least alternative rock, especially their first three albums. The first one that comes to mind is the (very dark) song “Exit Music (for a film)”, off OK Computer, considered by many one of the greatest albums of all time, and certainly of the last 30 years. They it wrote for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Given that it’s Romeo and Juliet, the title has dual meanings, and it’s a sad song, of course, and very beautiful and haunting and tear-jerking, but I don’t think there are any true rhymes.

    “Wake from your sleep, the drying of your tears. Today, we escape, we escape*. Pack and get dressed before your father hears us, before all Hell breaks loose. Breathe, keep breathing. Don’t lose your nerve. Breathe, keep breathing. I can’t do this alone. Sing us a song, a song to keep us warm; there’s such a chill, such a chill*. You can laugh a spineless laugh. We hope your rules and wisdom choke you…Now, we are one, in everlasting peace. We hope that you choke, that you choke*. We hope that you choke, that you choke*. We hope that you choke, that you choke*.”

    *These repeated words MIGHT count as rhymes.

        1. Would like to recommend the version by The Four Freshmen.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0N0QVRWWt6g

          The song is great. The combination of the melody line and the intense imagery of the lyrics are such that “people who live in this romantic setting are so hypnotized by the lovely . . . evening summer breeze . . . ” rhyme or not.

          Many think of Vermont in the autumn (great swaths of red maple perhaps not to be found elsewhere in autumnal foliage), and I think of Johnny Mercer’s lyrics in “Early Autumn,” which is full of rhyme.

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3OPciYbA7c

      1. I tried to leave a reply to your reply, but for some reason it did not show up, but I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t trying to disagree with you or counter your point, but took your comment about people finding songs as an invitation to give examples. I agree with your point and the one I remembered came to mind precisely because it was a counter-example.

        That’s all. Terminado.

  3. I think the time signatures or meter that can be found in modern pop music might have something to do with it – The Beatles have plenty of unusual – meaning, interesting and surprising – time signatures or meter occurring somewhere. Other pop or rock bands from that time do as well.

    The pop music in current production, I’m not sure. I can think of Soundgarden or Nirvana as recent pop rock successes with unusual time frames.

    But – the point is, the time frame is heard as played by the band – while poetry is up to the reader.

    Not sure what that means for poetry but that the lyrics have to fit in somehow. 4/4 means the strong/weak beats pull lyrics a certain way.

    Very interesting question!

    Now, (to self) : BACK TO WORK!

    1. I think I know what you mean. The rhythm of the music, and the delivery can make the lack of a rhyme in some songs sound just fine, too, which is sort of the converse of what you’re pointing out, but I think is related. Whereas, like PCC(E), I think the only poem I really like that doesn’t have a real rhyme scheme is “The Second Coming” by Yeats, but it does have a regular meter or rhythm or whatever the proper term is.

  4. > So I can think of no rhymeless music. I’m sure that readers can trawl up a song or two without rhymes, but I’m making a general claim.

    I’m rather partial to John Cage’s 4’33”.

    I suppose it would make sense to ask an intercultural musicologist. I wonder how modern non-western music fares. Western music is dominated by time signatures where every song can be broken down into a basic four-count and sixteen-count rhythm, which lends itself well to repetitive melodies and rhymes. It’s not my field, though.

  5. Some would argue that many forms of Hip Hop are poetry set to music. So if you see it that way, it’s a modern art form in which rhyming is key and which is both poetry and music.

  6. Well, if modern poetry … is still a form of written music

    I don’t think I agree with that. I don’t think songs are poetry with music or poems are songs without music. At least, trying to put poems to music or write song lyrics as if they were poetry doesn’t work a lot of the time. Song lyrics and poetry are distinct art forms with some overlap, in my opinion.

    In fact, maybe that answers the question. Poetry and song lyrics are distinct so why would you expect them to necessarily follow the same conventions?

    1. 1. Sound is what music is made of. Poetry is IMO intended to be read aloud. Thus poetry can also be music.

      2. Jim Morrison – poet, I say.

    1. Well, if one dispenses with rhyme, that’s one less “inconvenience” to deal with when writing poetry.

      Lewish Lapham (former editor of Harper’s magazine and currently publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly) several years ago stated that the average American’s vocabulary had decreased from 12,000 to 6,000 words in something like the last century, if memory serves me. (He didn’t specify how he knew that, but he’s been in the word business a good while.) Perhaps that has implications for the level of rhyming skills across the fruited plain.

  7. You are excluding classical music songs. If your music has a rigid repetitive rhythm and form, there is an implicit rhyme given by the repeating rhythmic pattern.

    1. Yes. Jerry has emphasised that he’s referring to modern songs, but that depends on what you define as ‘modern’.

      One of my favourite lesser-known English composers is Gerald Finzi (1901-56). He wrote getting on for 100 songs to the poems of Thomas Hardy, many of which don’t rhyme. Some of them are the most moving I know: I would far sooner pick one of them for my ‘Desert Island Discs’ than any pop music.

      Is Finzi ‘modern’? Some would say he’s old hat. But his musical language is far more subtle and intricate than most popular music. I know which I prefer – and, as Jerry says, it’s all down to personal preferences anyway.

  8. Send in the Clowns is one of my favorite non-classical songs as well, but I greatly prefer Ol’ Blue Eyes’ version: it seems much more heart-felt to me. Judy Collins has a pretty voice, but she doesn’t have as much “soul” as say Frankie or Joni.

  9. I agree with the general rule. There will be occasional exceptions, but most popular/rock music leans heavily on rhymes.

    While one may think that someone like Dylan being a “poet” might eschew rhymes, his songs actually often have intricate rhyming structures, including internal rhymes.

    I think it’s the occasional absence of rhymes that can make a song’s lyrics even more memorable. I think of Joni Mitchell’s last stanza from “Just Like This Train.” After rhyming with “sink” and “drink,” she then sings:

    “Settle down into the clickety clack
    With the clouds and the stars to read
    Dreaming of the pleasure I’m going to have
    Watching your hairline recede my vain darling”

    which I think is just marvelous.

  10. People love rhyme. I have read that the epic ballads of the ancient past were rhymed as an aid to memory. My opinion is that it pleases the listener’s ear at least as much as it helps memorization. I believe it is a human delight, not located in a single historic era. Modern poetry “freed” poetry from rhyme and regular rhythms. On the other hand, modern and contemporary poetry lost its audience. I do love modern poetry, with it’s subtle plays of internal rhymes, echos, and unpredictable rhythms. But poetry has relinquished any hope of communicating to its own generation. People have to read poetry for it to matter. All excitement both materially and artistically is in pop music.

  11. It’s because modern poetry is bad.
    Not really. But I do like rhyming poetry. Poetry that doesn’t rhyme reminds me of songs that aren’t sung – talk songs or breathy whisper songs. I do not like them either.
    Why wouldn’t you write poetry that rhymes? Because it’s hard, I imagine.

    1. Poets used to be among the most esteemed people in society, while they are now completely irrelevant. So you get less talent and much worse content. The modern Homer, Keats, Goethe or Kipling would never use poetry to express their ideas.

  12. While in no way attempting to undermine Jerry’s generalization (which I agree with), here’s an example of a modern song (#5 on the Billboard Chart in 1995) that doesn’t rhyme: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something (which I’ve always detested):

    You’ll say we’ve got nothing in common
    No common ground to start from
    And we’re falling apart
    You’ll say the world has come between us
    Our lives have come between us
    Still I know you just don’t care

    And I said, “What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
    She said, “I think I remember the film
    And as I recall, I think we both kinda liked it”
    And I said, “Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got”

  13. Rhyme in poetry was originally developed as a memory device, since the poems weren’t written down. It evolved into a device to simply give pleasure to the ear.

    Personally, I think of rhymes in poetry as sleight-of-hand magic: the rhymes are helping to make the poem work, but you don’t want the audience to be aware of it. For example, the following poem of mine has an intricate rhyme scheme: The first and third line of each stanza rhyme, but the fourth line, instead of rhyming with the second line, sets up the rhyme for the first line of the next stanza. The last stanza breaks the pattern, which is pretty much the point of having a pattern—you can break it for effect, which you can’t do with free verse. Listening to the poem, you probably wouldn’t pick up on the fact that there was any rhyme at all, but it’s definitely having an effect This is pretty typical of how I and a number of poets of my generation use rhyme. Can’t speak for musicians.

    THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY

    Man, you got a bird where your brain
    should be, he says, talking to me.
    I say: Perhaps you’d like to explain
    that figure of speech for the whole class.

    He says: A bird, man, a bird—thass
    one o’ them things with wings what flies
    around. You, you jes sits on your ass,
    but your brain it flies around, goes

    flap an’ flap—like this. He shows
    me then with his arms, doing flap-an’-flaps
    between the aisles like a trained crow’s
    bad imitation of a little black

    boy flying. Then he flaps to the back
    of the room and out the door, free:
    free of the class, that doesn’t crack
    a smile; free of the teacher, who sits

    on his ass, a bird where his brain should be.

  14. A related question about music: why do so many songs just fade out rather than have an ending. As a poet, I consider this a cop-out, but my son who is a musician, isn’t offended by it at all. Not saying that a song that ends is better than one that just fades out; there are plenty of great songs that fade out. E.g., of my two favorite Eagle songs, “Desperado” and “Take It to the Limit,” the former ends and the latter fades out (and takes way too long doing it, IMO). Still, I consider it lazy on the part of a song-writer/arranger to simply fade out. Anyone else feel this way?

    1. I remember this was one of my dad’s pet peeves! There is something satisfying about a definitive conclusion, but, at the same time, I can’t imagine “Take It to the Limit” doing anything other than slowly trailing off… like this comment…

    2. Reading your comment immediately brought to mind Metal Head by Blotto from the glorious 80s (1983 to be exact).

      It’s a fun spoof of the hard rocker archetype that hits on as many of the common tropes of the type as the band could fit in. One of those is the ending of the song. Not actually “the fade” you mention but similar, the dramatic sudden end, but not really, and not really again, and again . . .

    3. Whether to fade or end is a bit of a mystery. To say that certain songs just “seem” like they ought to fade is unsatisfying. I wonder if it possibly has to do with commercial radio. I’ve noticed that a favorite performance group of mine will neatly end certain songs in live performance. To my ear, to try to fade out in a live performance comes off shabbily and awkwardly and anti-climactically, whereas it’s the opposite with studio recordings.

  15. What a coincidence: I was just pondering exactly this question this week: why do virtually all lyrics rhyme?

    I’ll be interested in the answers, because I don’t have one.

    1. An idea that came to mind, rhyming helps establish or define a rhythm, analogous to how the bass and drums establish the rhythm for music.

      To me it seems more difficult to arrange rhymeless lyrics so that they sound good in a musical sense. I’d liken it to a musician in the rhythm section making a mistake that stands out, or just a poorly composed section of music. It certainly can be done, but I often notice instances of a certain line or phrase of rhyme free lyrics that just don’t sound good musically (to my ear anyway), while I don’t often find the same with rhyming lyrics, even when semantically the lyrics are bad.

  16. I was going to “Day Tripper” by the Beatles, but I realized that there is one rhyme: the first line of the second verse is “She’s a big teaser,” and the first line of the third verse is “Tried to please her.” That’s the only rhyme in the song. (The first verse starts with “Got a good reason;” assonance rather than rhyme.

  17. I suspect the generalisation is true enough for modern music but some blasts from the past had some rhymes but did not impose them rigorously. I’m thinking of Bohemiam Rhapsody – which is probably too variable to require regular rhyming.

  18. When I was in high school in the late 1970s, we had to study the poems of John Betjeman, who was the British Poet Laureate at the time. His poems rhymed with a vengeance, sometimes to the point of being forced. I found most of his work too maudlin and saccharine.

    We also studied the First World War poets, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose (rhyming) poems deeply moved me. But my favourite poem was, and remains, Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which rhymes throughout and has a cadence that demands to be read aloud, in the tradition of the Homeric epics. I recommend the version read by Richard Burton.

    1. The street is bathed in winter sunset pink,
      The air is redolent of kitchen sink, Between the dog—mess heaps I pick my way
      To watch the dying embers of the day
      Glow over Chelsea, crimson load on load
      All Brangwynesque across the long Kings road.
      Deep in myself I feel a sense of doom,
      Fearful of death I trudge towards the tomb.
      https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KGjUAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA182&dq=%22John+Betjeman%22+chelsea&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&source=gb_mobile_search&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi-yaK19LX6AhUJTcAKHd5dCokQuwV6BAgEEAY#v=onepage&q=%22John%20Betjeman%22%20chelsea&f=false

      1. Still, he also wrote:

        Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
        It isn’t for for humans now

        which always makes me laugh.

  19. “But poetry in English started losing its rhymes with Walt Whitman”. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost in blank verse. It was published in 1667.

  20. When you mentioned Dylan my mind went immediately to my favourite Dylan song Tomorrow is a Long Time which has no rhyming structure.

  21. My favorite answer to this question comes from the late Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford. When asked at a reading why more of his poems didn’t rhyme, Bill answered: “I think all sounds rhyme–sort of. I mean, every syllable sounds more like every other syllable than it sounds like silence.”

  22. Bit of brainstorming here:

    Led Zeppelin – used unusual time signatures or meters in some tunes – Over the Hills and Far Away has moments … I’ll have to review the lyrics

    Funny – I must have heard them a million times but do not know about rhyme in them…

  23. I’ve been a Judy Collins fan since the 60s and love her way of singing. She really has a great technique, even if the voice is sometimes a bit “raw”. Streisand always sounds a bit nasal to me, but her technique too is great. But the accompaniment to this “Somewhere” I find corny. When the drummer comes in with a big crescendo, it’s clearly supposed to thrill us, but it doesn’t. Not me, at least. Too bad, Streisand deserves better. And then… chacun à son gout.

  24. Very interesting and 2 beautiful songs.

    Made me want to find songs that are popular that DON’T rhyme…all courtesy of Google!

    “Under The Bridge” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers doesn’t rhyme, apart from the chorus which rhymes “day” and “way”.
    https://youtu.be/GLvohMXgcBo

    Stevie Nicks has written a lot of songs (with and without Fleetwood Mac) that don’t rhyme, rhyme infrequently, or use such an oddball rhyming schemes.

    “Moonlight in Vermont” is famous for not rhyming.
    https://youtu.be/esynsha53A8
    ________________________________________

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