Rhyme in Musical Theatre Lyrics

Here is an interesting question that I’d like people to consider: why do we expect musical theatre to make use of pure rhyme or celebrate lyrics that are crafted using pure rhyme more readily than those that employ other kinds of rhyme? It’s a convention that I think many people accept as a standard for musical theatre, but is it only convention that makes it so?

When one takes into consideration that other kinds of rhyme actually are identified in English as different kinds of rhyme, rather than being “wrong”, should this expectation shift at all? In An Introduction to Rhyme, Peter Dale analyses forty different kinds of rhyme, a list of which can be seen here. Do none of these except the certain forms of traditional pure rhyme have a prize place in musical theatre? If so, why?

I’ve also posed this question on Finishing the Chat and I think the responses here and there might lay the foundation for some interesting discussion on musical theatre practice. Feel free to comment in the comment box below if you have anything to contribute to the discussion.

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8 Responses to Rhyme in Musical Theatre Lyrics

  1. Hans Anders Elgvang says:

    Reading that long list of rhymes (and not being able to read the book, as it is out of stock), I miss an accounting of what Dale believes is the purpose of rhyme.

    In my opinion purposes of rhyme can be pleasure or delight, surprise and a sense of inevitability.

    All these effects are dependent on consistency and that the rhymes are identifiable as rhymes. It is also necessary that the rhyme must feel natural, while one at the same time must realise that they are difficult to come up with.

    Pure rhyme gives more pleasure and feels more inevitable because they are harder to create that most of those other categories of rhyme. They are also more easy to identify as rhymes, and not sloppy coincidences of sound. It is also less surprising if you for example have a couplet with a “punch line” at the end, and is consists of some sort of half rhyme. It gives a feeling of copping out.

    Some of the rhymes that are identified here are also irrelevant. Rhymes are an effect of sound, so eye rhymes like love/move doesn’t create anything but annoyance.

    In principle, though, I believe texts with rhyme sorts that are not pure can give the same effects as texts with pure rhyme. I even believe I have read poems of that sort and enjoyed them. But this demands that there is set up a very strong rhyme scheme that makes it very clear that the un-pure rhymes are chosen deliberately for a very consistent pattern.

    In reality, though, rhymes that are not pure are almost always used by accident, in pop songs of the sort where people stay together forever, which further increases the bad reputation of un-pure rhyme.

    To sum up, there is in principle no reason to not use other sorts of rhyme in musical theatre, but it’s harder to create the intended effect with them (because they are easier to create as rhymes, and the effect of rhymes is dependent on a feeling that they are difficult to make). There is absolutely no reason to use them as subsitutes for pure rhyme, if the rhyme scheme sets up a pure rhyme.

  2. Adie says:

    I love the notion of inevitability in rhyme. That has never crossed my mind. Neither has the importance of pure rhyme. I love the use of pure rhyme in the middle of a song that hasn’t used that format throughout to convey an important idea. From my limited exposure to musical theatre, I believe Rodgers and Hammerstein use this often, e.g. “A Wonderful Guy” (South Pacific), blank verse style:

    I’m as corny as Kansas in August
    I’m as normal as blueberry pie
    No more a smart / little girl with no heart
    I have found me a wonderful guy

    On a side note, it often makes it more hummable. 🙂

  3. Hans Anders Elgvang says:

    What is this supposed to mean? Why did you bold out those syllables?

  4. Adie says:

    Stressed and unstressed syllables that lead up to a pure rhyme.

  5. Hans Anders Elgvang says:

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand how those particular stressed an unstressed syllables lead any more up to the pure rhyme than the other stressed and unstressed syllables in the lines? I don’t even understand what you mean by them leading up to the rhyme?

  6. Adie says:

    I apologise for that, I mean the stressed/unstressed pattern is so consistent and then breaks to highlight the “no more a smart / little girl with no heart”.

  7. Hans Anders Elgvang says:

    This is more and more confusing. The rhythmic pattern (if that’s what you are referring to) doesn’t break at all. It is not the same as a rhyme scheme anyway, and exists on a parallel level.

    The rhythmic pattern and rhyme scheme is this (with bold indicating stressed syllables and colours indicating rhymes):

    I’m as corny as Kansas in August,
    I’m as normal as blueberry pie
    No more a smart little girl with no heart
    I have found me a wonderful guy

    (I’m not sure if cor- and nor- counts as rhymes, or if they just happen to have identical end sounds.)

    Is this what you mean?

  8. Profetikus says:

    The purpose off anything sung is to sound good when its sung (obviously) so use rhymes that you think sound good.

    Could it really be a fee for a bee? 😀

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