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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes

Alex Kulak2
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#1
Posted: 7/11/20 at 12:13pm

The recently resurrected thread on bad lyrics got me thinking about the debate between perfect and imperfect (or slant) rhymes.

I used to be a purist when it came to rhyming in lyrics. It was being exposed to the likes of Hadestown and Hamilton that my opinion became a little more nuanced. Of course, I still believe that a clever perfect rhyme is better than a clever imperfect rhyme, but both are still clever.

On the other hand, I think the detriment of musical theatre music can come from being a slave to perfect rhymes. The musical Superhero is nothing but one-syllable, perfect rhymes. It's also the blandest score I've ever listened to. Beetlejuice, on the other hand, is full of slant rhymes and assonance, but I'm ten times more interested in the lyrics.

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#2
Posted: 7/11/20 at 1:58pm

I took an online songwriting course from Berkley College of Music taught by Pat Pattison several years ago. In the part of the course on songwriting, he made the point that imperfect rhymes can add an element of lyrical "tension" or an "unresolved" quality that may actually be an effective technique to use when its appropriate to the situation of the song. It's a parallel to a lack of harmonic or melodic resolution in the music: it can be appropriate ifyou want to convey lack of closer, forward momentum, indecision, uncertainty, etc.

Another thing to keep in mind is that everyday conversational pronunciation/diction is far less precise and can be characterized by elision, slurring syllables together, replacing consonant clusters with simpler ones (e.g., "splinter" becoming "splinner"Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes. In rap and rock music, lyricists can get away with a lot less precision because they are pronouncing the words in a more colloquial way, rather than exact, dictionary diction. I think it might come across as twee, artificial and less natural, or overbearing if Hamilton had all perfect rhyme, for instance.

Updated On: 7/11/20 at 01:58 PM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#3
Posted: 7/11/20 at 4:21pm

I think both of you have made some good observations. There are various considerations, including those you mention. I'll add one. One of the key ingredients of a "good" lyric (and this applies with equal force to lots of other elements of a show) is that it does not take the listener out of the moment. This plays out in two opposite ways (though of course many people all between the poles). "Purists" are taken out of a moment when they hear a slant rhyme. Others find a heavy reliance on rhymes to take them out of the moment, because their attention is diverted from the content of the words by the need to check in on the perfection of the rhyme. There is no way to resolve this; it (like most everything in art) comes down to one's taste (which in turn may be a function of what one is "taught"Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#4
Posted: 7/12/20 at 12:49am

To continue Hogan's train of thought, to some (particularly those who grew up on pop music and slant rhymes) perfect rhyming can make all the characters sound like they are at one of Cole Porter's cocktail parties.

(On the other hand, the "hillbilly" characters of L'IL ABNER all sing in perfect rhymes by the master, Johnny Mercer. As do the "underworld" characters of GUYS AND DOLLS, with Frank Loesser's lyrics. So the impact of rhyming in comedies seems to be different than in "representational" musical plays.)

Oddly enough, my college advisor told me the exact OPPOSITE of the advice attributed to Pat Pattison above. My advisor told me to take out some of the perfect rhymes and put in imperfect rhymes instead in order to LOWER the tension of everyone singing with such precise diction.

If what Pattison is reported to have said is true, why bother with slant rhymes? Why not use identities (as Hammerstein did in his work with Rodgers) or simply not rhyme at all?

***

Having finally seen HAMILTON (with the subtitles turned on), I have to report my surprise that Miranda doesn't use imperfect, "pop" rhyming more than he actually does. 

Updated On: 7/13/20 at 12:49 AM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#5
Posted: 7/12/20 at 1:06am

This is mostly unrelated to the OP's question, but some of the posts in this thread reminded me of the musical Promenade, which was just performed at Encores! Off-Center last year. 

In Promenade, there is no rhyming at all, except when the wealthy, snobbish characters want to show off their self-proclaimed "wittiness." And the rhymes tend to be extremely simplistic and perfect, and they are also diegetic - the characters comment on the rhyming within the story. One of the most interesting uses of rhyme I've ever seen in a musical. 

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#6
Posted: 7/12/20 at 1:51am

^^^^^ I wasn't in the room where it happened, JB, but knowing their other work, I suspect Fornes and Carmines were making an asset out of a liability. (Carmines did some interesting work with Gertrude Stein's texts, unrhymed of course because that's the way Stein wrote, even when she intended her words to be sung.)

Paul Gordon is a current example of work where the characters sometimes sing in the prose of the source novel, sometimes sing in unrhymed verse, sometimes in rhymed verse. And, damn, if I can figure out what convention he is employing in any given show! I love DADDY LONG LEGS and like some of Gordon's other scores; but I'd like them better if I knew why the characters sing as they do.

I think I may prefer DLL so strongly because the "epistolary" nature of the source material gives Gordon's libretto a structure and a reality lacking in his other shows.

Updated On: 7/12/20 at 01:51 AM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#7
Posted: 7/12/20 at 10:25am
Something I find notable about perfect rhymes is that they’re also a way to assist the viewer in understanding the lyrics. There are so many pop songs I love where I’m not really sure what they say in some parts, but they’re not crafted to communicate information to me, exactly once, while I’m attentively listening. On the other side, I don’t typically just vibe to a musical number in the theatre, because I expect them to explicate a concept and develop an epiphany of some sort, so if the rhyme doesn’t land it means I have to stop listening and try to dissect what I just heard ten seconds prior.

There’s also the issue of communicated intent. A musical with slant/imperfect rhymes needs to let me know right away that there will be slant/imperfect rhymes, and it also needs to tell me why. Hadestown contains them and it doesn’t feel out of place because it feels like a throwback to folk and jazz songs that were born out of a musical tradition that itself contained slant and imperfect rhymes, so we’re OK with that. Mitchell also does a good job of making slant rhymes with words that can be bent. “Lover tell me if you can/who’s gonna buy the wedding band” works because “band” is often pronounced with a softened D and the music itself elongates the word.

On the other hand, you have shows like Beetlejuice and Book of Mormon, where there’s no real explicit ruleset. Sometimes they rhyme and sometimes they don’t, so it’s hard to know what to expect. In the thread that prompted this thread, I mentioned Beetlejuice’s non-rhyming “hitlist/Christmas/Triscuits/statistics” moment, which wouldn’t be half as annoying if it wasn’t immediately followed by four lines of perfect rhymes. It makes for a jumbled and distracting listening experience because you’re sitting there going “what? christmas? oh, he’s not rhyming”, all in the service of an incredibly mediocre joke.

For me it just comes down to the fact that I shouldn’t have to stop listening to try to find my bearings.
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#8
Posted: 7/12/20 at 12:07pm

Charley Kringas Inc said: "Something I find notable about perfect rhymes is that they’re also a way to assist the viewer in understanding the lyrics...."

You've done a great job of stating one side of the "navigational" argument. As I suggested above, not everyone gets their "bearings" in the same way. One aspect of this that you touch on and that I have always found interesting is the different ways people pronounce words and letters in English, and how that affects "perfection." In some accents, final consonants are not just soft but are silent. (Listen to Billie Joe Armstrong speak and sing (in what I assume is an East Bay accent) and you will get an example. Then listen to John Gallagher Jr sing his words in a much more articulated (in what I assume is an Atlantic Seaboard accent) way. I remember another example mentioned to me by a songwriter once, the word "forty." If you expect a singer to say a "t" instead of a "d," you are making a choice that actually affects how the listener perceives the character singing it.  

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#9
Posted: 7/12/20 at 12:09pm

GavestonPS said: "Oddly enough, my college advisor told me the exact OPPOSITE of the advice attributed to Pat Pattison above. My advisor told me to take out some of the perfect rhymes and put in imperfect rhymes instead in order to LOWER the tension of everyone singing with such precise diction.

If what Pattison is reported to have said is true, why bother with slant rhymes? Why not use identities (as Hammerstein did in his work with Rodgers) or simply not rhyme at all?
"

Obviously, impressions of art and terms like "tension" are highly subjective, and I can't know whether what your professor meant by that word and what Pattison meant (and what you or I mean by it) is the same, any more than I can know whether we all see the same color when we think of "red." That said, here is Pattison's taxonomy of rhyme based on my notes from the course:

Perfect Rhyme: most stable, identical vowel sounds and same consonant (if any) after vowel; must have a different initial sound so as not to be an identity; fully resolved (e.g., fight/kite, abrupt/corrupt, cry/try)

Family Rhyme: same vowel sound, but consonant rhymes created within same phonetic category rather than identical sound; i.e., plosives (p, t, k, b, d, g) with other plosives, fricatives (v, TH/th, z, zh, f, s, sh, ch) with other fricatives, nasals (m, n, ng) with other nasals; such rhyme can still create closure, but with acceleration and a tiny bit more flexibility and instability compared to perfect rhyme (e.g., grim/grin, hymn/thin, height/pike); voiced vs. unvoiced can also vary in stability (e.g., brig/brick vs. twig/lid; voiced -> unvoiced consonant creates more closure vs. other way around; family rhymes within same voiced/unvoiced category are also more stable than mixed between the two)

Additive/Subtractive Rhyme: when dealing with words that don't end in a sound that is in the same phonetic family or in a vowel, we can use an additive/subtractive rhyme; add/subtract as little as possible to keep stable; the addition of a sound makes it slightly more stable, while subtraction creates instability (e.g., Brit/grits, cry/bride)

Assonant Rhyme: always unstable; only the vowel sound is the same (e.g., cat/bag, light/knife, feed/theme)

Consonant Rhyme: most unstable; vowel sounds are different, but the final consonant is the same (e.g., friend/mind, sent/grunt, grace/twice)

So, Pattison's take on rhyme was a lot more nuanced that I had originally remembered (I took the course in 2013, so it's been a while), and he uses the term "stability" rather than "tension." To my ear, his hierarchy of stability/instability seems basically correct but, again, it's obviously going to be very subjective and dependent on context.

Updated On: 7/12/20 at 12:09 PM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#10
Posted: 7/13/20 at 1:16am

Wow, Mike, you took great notes! I'm going to keep a copy, if you don't mind.

Yeah, I assumed Mueller (my guy) and Pattison were probably just using the word "tension" in different senses of the word. What I didn't mention was that I had written the prologue of an opera in perfectly rhymed couplets, which got to be more than a bit much after a while. The scene was much better when I re-wrote it in (unrhymed) free verse, and the composer was happier, too.

Thanks!

Alex Kulak2
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#11
Posted: 7/13/20 at 10:15am

I wanted to add that I think one of the best lyricists who utilizes slant rhymes, who wrote the songs for the Starkid shows The Trail to OregonThe Guy Who Didn't Like Musicals, and Black Friday. He doesn't rhyme perfectly far more often than he does, often relying on assonance and family rhyme, but with his songs (especially in the latter two shows), you never notice because of how well written the music is and how poetic the lyrics are.

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#12
Posted: 7/13/20 at 3:57pm

With something as personal as rhyming, context is everything, isn't it?

Jason Robert Brown's absolutely perfect rhymes for his small-town 1960's characters in BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY don't make those plain people any less colloquial and salt of the earth than if their rhyming had been imperfect. The tunes might be country-inflected, but those impeccable rhymes maintained the high standard of the best Broadway showtunes of the period. 

And when he wanted to create an unpolished inarticulate statement for the husband Bud, he wrote "Something from a Dream" for him, a song containing zero rhymes.

JRB simply wouldn't let himself settle for an imperfect rhyme in that thoroughly perfect score.

And am I putting a value judgement on the perfect rhyme held in higher esteem over the imperfect one? Yeah, you bet I am. 

 

Updated On: 7/13/20 at 03:57 PM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#13
Posted: 7/13/20 at 4:03pm

Never underrate consistency and a clear statement of purpose.

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#14
Posted: 7/13/20 at 4:38pm

My rule for musicals has always been,

If you do imperfect rhyme, it has to be enough imperfect rhyme that it's part of the storytelling (Spring Awakening using imperfect rhyme to pastiche pop punk rock)

If the show is primarily perfect rhyme it has to stay perfect rhyme otherwise the non perfect rhyme will stick out like a sore thumb that you couldn't find a perfect rhyme.

 

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#15
Posted: 7/13/20 at 5:04pm

"those impeccable rhymes maintained the high standard of the best Broadway showtunes of the period"

and they also helped maintain his record of flops because not many people were interested in those perfect rhymes of his. Sorry but iin the commercial world of Broadway in which he tried to play, it's about resonance not rhyme. 

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#16
Posted: 7/13/20 at 5:27pm

Someone in a Tree2 said: "With something as personal as rhyming, context is everything, isn't it?

Jason Robert Brown's absolutely perfect rhymesfor his small-town 1960's characters inBRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY don't make those plain people any less colloquial and salt of the earth than if their rhyminghad been imperfect. The tunesmight be country-inflected, but those impeccablerhymes maintained the high standard of the best Broadway showtunes of the period.

And when he wanted to create an unpolished inarticulate statement for the husband Bud, he wrote "Something from a Dream" for him, a song containing zero rhymes.

JRB simply wouldn't let himself settle for an imperfect rhyme in that thoroughlyperfect score.

And am I putting a value judgement on the perfect rhyme held in higher esteem over the imperfect one? Yeah, you bet I am.


"

I agree with every word, Someone, even while acknowledging our bias.

And to me, BRIDGES is the best Broadway score so far this century.

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#17
Posted: 7/13/20 at 5:34pm

HogansHero said: ""those impeccable rhymes maintained the high standard of the best Broadway showtunes of the period"

and they also helped maintain his record of flops because not many people were interested in those perfect rhymes of his. Sorry but iin the commercial world of Broadway in which he tried to play, it's about resonance not rhyme.
"

Hogan, without arguing your point, I think you've picked the wrong example. To me--and I acknowledge that this is partly subjective--BRIDGES sacrifices nothing of resonance with its perfect rhyming. And I don't believe the show failed because it didn't employ slant rhymes.

That if failed so badly says something very sad, I fear, about contemporary audiences and their lack of interest in musical theater with any theme more complicated than "Love conquers all."

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#18
Posted: 7/13/20 at 6:06pm

Gaveston, thanks for the nod of approval, sir.
I would probably agree with you that BRIDGES remains one of my two favorite Bway scores of at least the last ten years. Wanna hear my other favorite? The gorgeous but perpetually slant-rhymed HADESTOWN.

See how open-minded I can be in the face of sheer brilliance?

Updated On: 7/13/20 at 06:06 PM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#19
Posted: 7/13/20 at 6:18pm

Someone in a Tree2 said: "Gaveston, thanks for the nod of approval, sir.
I would probably agree with you that BRIDGES remains one of my two favorite Bway scores of at least the last ten years. Wanna hear my other favorite? The gorgeous but perpetually slant-rhymed HADESTOWN.

See how open-minded I can be in the face of sheer brilliance?
"

And I own all three recordings of HADESTOWN! If I hadn't met you in RL I might think you were some ghostie I had created long ago and forgotten! (This is a joke. I don't use ghost accounts.)

Seriously, what both shows have in common is that their conventions are set out clearly in the beginning and then maintained through the end. Too many show scores sound like their lyrics rhyme when a rhyme occurs to the writer and then don't when s/he can't think of one.

I think rattleNwoolypenguin basically said this a few posts ago. It's about consistency of conventions. It makes me a little nuts when Sondheim says, "perfect rhyme always implies intelligence and education"! Really, Steve? And which Ivy League school did Petra attend?

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#20
Posted: 7/13/20 at 6:25pm

GavestonPS said: "Hogan, without arguing your point, I think you've picked the wrong example. To me--and I acknowledge that this is partly subjective--BRIDGES sacrifices nothing of resonance with its perfect rhyming. And I don't believe the show failed because it didn't employ slant rhymes.

That if failed so badly says something very sad, I fear, about contemporary audiences and their lack of interest in musical theater with any theme more complicated than "Love conquers all."
"

I'm not arguing your point either LOL. I did not mean subjective resonance, but the broader resonance that makes a show successful in a commercial setting. (And no I am also not urging a causal connection between perfect rhymes and failure.) What I do disagree with is your effort to lay the blame on "contemporary audiences." First of all, I don't believe you are seriously suggesting that today's successful musicals are all vapid and simplistic; there are way too many that I know you know about that are anything but. (On the contrary, I think there are other decades that would be much better targets for that notion.) And secondly, I also find it hard to believe you think Bullets as a subject was some paragon of rich literature. I respect the fact that you adore the score and I don't think any one element inherently kills any show, but I just think that it (notwithstanding your feelings about it) fails to give a lot of people a reason to be interested. (Me included, obviously, but that's beside the point.) 

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#21
Posted: 7/13/20 at 6:30pm

GavestonPS said: "Someone in a Tree2 said: "Gaveston, thanks for the nod of approval, sir.
I would probably agree with you that BRIDGES remains one of my two favorite Bway scores of at least the last ten years. Wanna hear my other favorite? The gorgeous but perpetually slant-rhymed HADESTOWN.

See how open-minded I can be in the face of sheer brilliance?
"

And I own all three recordings of HADESTOWN! If I hadn't met you in RL I might think you were some ghostie I had created long ago and forgotten! (This is a joke. I don't use ghost accounts.)

Seriously, what both shows have in common is that their conventions are set out clearly in the beginning and then maintained through the end. Too many show scores sound like their lyrics rhyme when a rhyme occurs to the writer and then don't when s/he can't think of one.

I think rattleNwoolypenguin basically said this a few posts ago. It's about consistency of conventions. It makes me a little nuts when Sondheim says, "perfect rhymealways implies intelligence and education"! Really, Steve? And which Ivy League school did Petra attend?
"

I totally agree about "Miller's Son". It's one of my favorite Sondheim songs, but it feels so out of place. Sondheim complains that Maria sounds too smart in "I Feel Pretty" but let's this song slide?

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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#22
Posted: 7/13/20 at 7:10pm

I think in the case of Sondheim, his lyrics do tend to be so urbane, in terms of the concepts/ideas, metaphors, and wordplay he utilizes and the vocabulary he utilizes, that, in his hands, perfect rhyme does often come across as intelligence, or at least, sharp wit. "A Little Priest" is a good example: Lovett and Todd are not highborn or educated, but each rhyme that ripples out of their mouths is like a tiny intellectual epiphany. Somehow, he manages to make it seem spontaneous. For Jack and Little Red in ITW, he still uses perfect rhyme, but awkwardly when they are both inexperienced at the beginning ("to granny who is sick in bed/ for all that I know, she's already dead"Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes, to a little bit more polished when they have gone through their quests, though the concepts and diction he uses are simpler than their adult counterparts ("she brings you food and she brings you rest/ and she draws you close to her giant breast"Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes.

Updated On: 7/13/20 at 07:10 PM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#23
Posted: 7/14/20 at 11:01am

One of the Sondheim shows that's boggled me is Passion. While there are exceptions like the Soldier's Gossip and the Flashback with Count Ludovic, most of the show's lyrics are incredibly restrained in terms of rhyme and wordplay. It almost doesn't feel like a Sondheim score. What was the rationale behind that?

Updated On: 7/14/20 at 11:01 AM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#24
Posted: 7/14/20 at 11:56am

^ I’m not a fan of PASSION at all, but I would venture to say that dazzling rhyming calls more attention to the lyricist than to the character singing. And for PASSION, SS wanted to disappear as much as possible and let the story be front and center.

Still made for an insufferable evening for yours truly.

Updated On: 7/14/20 at 11:56 AM
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Perfect Rhymes vs. Imperfect Rhymes#25
Posted: 7/14/20 at 3:00pm

I defend Petra's smart lyricism in Miller's Son cause I think she IS more intelligent than the other characters give her credit for. 

It's always worked for me cause what separates Petra from them is class, but that doesn't mean she is dumb.