Let’s dive into the science of rhyming for a moment. A rhyme consists of the duplication or approximation of the sounds of a syllable: its onset, nucleus, and coda (bear with me, I realize this is sounding too academic already…there really is a payoff!).
The onset is the first consonant you hear.
The nucleus is the vowel sound.
The coda is the ending consonant.
For example, “cat” is comprised of the onset “K sound”, followed by the nucleus “short A sound”, ending with a “T sound” coda. Words like: a, I, and oh, are entirely nucleus; some words like: ear, at, ease have no “onset” (officially called: null onset!); while other words have no coda, like: may, too, go.
Most of the time, when I’m creating a rhyme, I’m trying to match the nucleus (the vowel sounds) and the coda (the ending consonant). Obviously, there are words that have no coda (you, may, too, go, etc.), but for this article I’m going to stick with words that have a coda.
We’re all familiar with the mainstay of songwriting: the perfect rhyme (insert angelic “ahhh”). A perfect rhyme consists of two words that match their nucleus and coda (fat/cat; dog/hog; etc.). Perfect rhymes are the workhorses of songs and poetry. However, perfect rhymes have inherent limitations. First, perfect rhymes can be cliché; second (and more frustrating for me personally), though it is usually easy to find words that rhyme perfectly, it is another thing altogether to find a word that rhymes perfectly AND is perfect for the meaning of a lyric. Maybe “I don’t want to put a hat on my cat, or give him a bat, or have him lie on a mat.”
This is where I turn to Partner Rhymes.
To understand Partner Rhymes, we have to dive a little deeper into what creates the sound of a consonant. First consonants are either “voiced” or “unvoiced”. A voiced consonant contains a pitch or a note. For example, hum a melody using the sound of “M”. Easy, right? You can do the same thing with an N, Z, or V. Some voiced consonants are short, but you can still eke out a note. Try a melody with a G sound, or a D, or B (author’s note: a small part of me hopes you’re singing these in public somewhere, and the people around you think you’re a little crazy). Whether singing or speaking (not counting whispering), a voiced consonant will always have a note, whether it is the not of an actually melody or the usually ignored natural pitch of your singing voice.
“I don’t want to put a hat on my cat, or give him a bat, or have him lie on a mat”
On the other hand, unvoiced consonants have no pitch. “T” is a good example, so is “S”, or the consonant “F”. Same thing with P, K, SH, etc.
What’s interesting, is that some voiced and unvoiced consonants are created using the exact same mouth shape. The only difference is whether they have a pitch or not. Make a SSSSSSSS sound. Now make a ZZZZZZZ sound. Now switch back and forth without a break in between them: SSSSS…ZZZZZ…SSSSS…ZZZZZ! Notice there is no change in your mouth when you switch between these two sounds, the only difference is that Z has a pitch, while S does not. This makes Z and S Partner Consonants, and therefore candidates for Partner Rhymes.
Remember when I introduced the nucleus, or vowel sound? When we sing, the nucleus takes over the spotlight (usually) from the pitch of any voiced consonant. In other words, the pitch of a consonant is significantly shorter than the vowel sound, almost becoming unnoticeable unless you emphasize the consonant on purpose. This means when we sing, if two words have the same nucleus and Partner Consonants as their rhyming coda (remember: a “coda” is the last consonant of a word) they create a connection almost identical to a perfect rhyme called a Partner Rhyme. This means that if you don’t find a Perfect Rhyme that works, a Partner Rhyme becomes a brilliant alternative.
Here’s a table of the voiced and unvoiced Partner Consonants.
Most of these are self explanatory, but let me explain the difference between the uppercase “TH” and the lower case “th”. Also, what the heck is: “zh”?
TH versus th
“TH” is voiced, as in: breathe, seethe, and thee.
“th”, is unvoiced as in: wreath, teeth, beneath, and think.
Except for zhuzh (!), the sound for “zh” comes from various combinations of other letters. Listen to the sound of the letter S in the words: Asian, pleasure, conclusion, usually, and visual; or the Z in seizure; or the GE in massage, mirage, beige. Some languages blur the line between zh and sh. In fact, in some dialects vision and mission are pronounced as a perfect rhyme.
The key to finding a Partner Rhyme (or any rhyme, for that matter) is to pay attention to how you say a word, not how it is spelled. For example: the word “judge” is spelled with a D and G, but the coda sound is J. So you will use the Partner Consonant for J instead of D and G. In other words, the Partner Consonant for J is CH, so a partner rhyme for judge would be: much, judge/much is a Partner Rhyme), not D and G), is CH. So a Partner Rhyme for “judge” would be “much” or “crutch”.
As a songwriter, I am constantly looking for the right words to convey a hard fought for message in my lyrics. Partner Rhymes grant more flexibility and ultimately allow more precision in crafting that message.