Mastering Rhyme Schemes in Lyric Writing

by David Bawiec, Spire Contributor | August 8, 2018

Combat Correspondent

If you’ve been writing songs for a while, you’ll know that rhymes can be a super helpful tool in your lyric writing. However, have you ever looked at the rhyme schemes that you’re using?

Odds are, you’re using only one or two basic rhyme schemes in all your songs. What follows are 12 different rhymes schemes to try in your songwriting to free your lyrics and give you more creative flexibility.

But first:

What is a rhyme scheme?

Before we talk about rhyme schemes, let’s define them. If you've been following this series of songwriting tips articles, you will have already explored various types of rhymes in your songs.

A rhyme scheme is a way of determining which lines of lyrics rhyme with one another. The pattern we choose allows us to create a flow that feels either stable or unstable. If every two lines of lyrics rhyme with each other you have a steady, even and stable rhyme scheme, where the expectation that is set by one line is instantly met and resolved in the following line. Whereas if your rhyming pattern is odd, and some lines don't rhyme at all, you're creating a rhyming scheme that is unbalanced, irregular and unstable.

Which rhyme scheme you use will often depend on the subject matter you're singing about, but ultimately the choice is up to you.

We use a very basic notation system to mark these up:

- If two (or more) lines rhyme together, we give them the same letter (starting with A and moving up the alphabet)

- If a line doesn't rhyme with any other rhyme we mark it with an X

Using this simple method you can easily notate the rhyme scheme and start recognizing it in existing songs. For example, if you have a four-line chorus in which lines 1 and 2 rhyme together and lines 3 and 4 rhyme together you have a chorus with an AABB rhyme scheme.

On the other hand, a verse that only has rhymes between lines 2 and 4, and no rhyme between lines 1 and 3 would be identified as a XAXA rhyme scheme.

If you take a look at some of the most successful songs in history you'll notice that whatever rhyme scheme is established in the first verse will typically employ the same one in recurring verses.

With the basics down, let's identify some popular rhyme schemes that you can try in your songwriting!

AABB

One of the more basic and standard rhyme schemes that you will find in songs is AABB. As the markup suggests, in this rhyme scheme the first two lines rhyme and the third and fourth lines rhyme.

Darling, I am growing old,

Silver threads among the gold, 

Shine upon my brow today, 

Life is fading fast away. 

Check out the verses of Kacey Musgraves' “Biscuits” for another great example of AABB.

As you can see, it's a very stable and strong connection that sets up expectations that are instantly met and resolved. In this case, the lyrics feel like you get two lines followed by another two lines. So if what you're writing about is a solid idea and it features an emotionally stable concept, this rhyme scheme could be a great fit.

ABAB

The second most popular rhyme scheme that you can find is ABAB. In this type, the first line will rhyme with the third, and the second will rhyme with the fourth. Take a look at Al Jolson’s April Showers:

Life is not a highway strewn with flowers

Still it holds a goodly share of bliss 

When the sun gives way to April showers 

Here is the point you should never miss 

Other examples of ABAB in popular songs can be found in the verses of Josh Groban's “Remember When It Rained” and in the first half of the chorus to Westlife's “I'm Already There.”

As you can see, this an equally stable rhyme scheme as AABB, however unlike that one, ABAB makes all four lines of the lyrics sound like one long group. It's an interesting effect to help change up the flow of your phrases. Worth trying when you don't want to your song to feel like it's only built out of steady couplets (two line phrases).

AAAX

In this rhyme scheme, you're rhyming three lines together and leaving the fourth line unrhymed.

When summer twilight's gently falling 

I'd love to know if you're recalling 

Your tender words to me enthralling 

And my heart is wond'ring still 

Check out the verses of Carly Rae Jepsen's “Call Me Maybe” for a great example of AAAX.

Lyrics of this type feel particularly interesting as they're very strong (due to the three rhymed lines) yet at the same time just when you think that fourth line will be another A rhyme you're surprised with a line that doesn't match. This mismatched line creates a very interesting effect and draws your attention. AAAX is a great one to use in your choruses as it allows you to create some strong rhyming connections and pull the attention to the unique hook in the last line.

XAXA

Similar to the ABAB, the XAXA form creates an effect that groups all four lines together into a long question-answer phrase. However unlike the previous one, in XAXA the first and third lines don't rhyme at all, leaving only lines two and four with rhymes.

Farther along we'll know all about it

Farther along we'll understand why;

Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, 

We'll understand it all by and by. 

“Sledgehammer” by Fifth Harmony has a great example of XAXA. Also, check out the verses of “My Heart Was Home Again.”

I particularly like this rhyme scheme because it doesn't lock you into having to rhyme each line. Instead, you're freer to have your words flow naturally and only rhyming once in a while. So if you've primarily written songs using AABB or ABAB, give this one a try and see how much of a difference it will make.

AAAA

This one is a very strong rhyme scheme where all four lines rhyme with each other. As you can imagine, as such, the AAAA rhyme scheme can be more difficult to pull off in a way that still has the lyrics flowing smoothly and makes them sound convincing. So I always applaud anyone who can make it happen.

Down in Louisiana in that sunny clime,

They play a class of music that is super fine, 

And it makes no difference if it's rain or shine,

You can hear that jazzin' music playin' all the time. 

The way to make this one not feel too restrictive and predictable is by using rhymes types other than perfect rhymes. But whatever you do, this rhyme will still have a very strong connection and feel solid and stable. So use it for topics that are supposed to feel that way.

Check out Coldplay's “Magic” for an example of AAAA used in a modern pop song.

AABXB or ABAXB

If you want to start getting adventurous, I recommend looking at odd line numbers. These start to venture into unstable territory. AABXB is a great example of this. It's an extended version of the AABB rhyme scheme.

You made me what I am today, I hope you're satisfied,

You dragged and dragged me down until the soul within me died.

You've shattered each and every dream, fooled me right from the start.

And though you're not true, may God bless you,

That's the curse of an aching heart. 

You still get that feeling of completion and resolution. However, it doesn't happen immediately. Any time you have an extension of a line that makes your listener wait for the resolution it always brings them in, listening, waiting for it.

Take a listen to how ABAXB (extended version of ABAB) is in use in the verses of Sara Bareilles' “Gravity.”

AXA or AAX

These variations make use of the three-line phrases, where the two of the lines rhyme and the third doesn't.

Joe and Jane were always together. 

Said Joe to Jane, 

"I love summer weather, 

So let's go to that beautiful sea, 

Follow along, 

Say you're with me!" 

Adele's When We Were Young uses this rhyme scheme in the verses.

As you can hear, this rhyme scheme feels and sounds beautiful yet leaves space for saying something more without having to rhyme each line. Adele isn't the only one who uses this rhyme scheme. Can you find it in more songs? Try to incorporate it into your own writing.

AABCCB

Another one in the three-line category is the AABCCB rhyme scheme. Here the first two lines rhyme and the third line doesn't instantly resolve. You then get two more rhyming lines followed by the sixth, which finally resolves the rhyme from line 3 and completes the entire section.

Dreaming I stray, 

back love’s sweet way, 

Ev’rywhere I find but gladness; 

Tho’ mem’ry sees 

visions like these, 

In my heart there is no sadness, 

The first three lines give this impression of suspension. It isn't till line six that that suspension gets released. This is a very powerful rhyme scheme. I recommend using it in songs with topics that are neither stable nor unstable but instead lie somewhere in between.

Give a listen to the verse of “Blow Your Mind (Mwah)” by Dua Lipa. It features some great AABCCB action.

XXAXXA

If you need to get wordier and want your phrases to feel like they're long, use the XXAXXA rhyme scheme. As the markup suggests, only one in three lines will rhyme here giving you plenty of space to get deep into your lyric writing.

I keep looking out the window 

Down the old brick road 

Watching people hiding from the rain 

I’m still holding onto memories 

From a different time 

Long before the start of all this pain 

The verses of Sarah McLachlan's “Angel” is a great example of this one.

XXAA

This one is great to use when you need to create a sense of worry or longing. The reason for that is that the first two lines here are unrhymed. The other two on the hand are rhymed. This creates a contrast that makes it feel lost and found all at once.

I'm forever blowing bubbles 

Pretty bubbles in the air 

They fly so high 

Nearly reach the sky 

You can find XXAA in “My Heart Was Home Again,” and in “Song of Forgetting” from “Next To Normal.” Check out the lyrics and see if you can find it there.

ABABCCDD

Finally, mixing and matching different rhyme schemes is totally fair play. Take ABABCCDD for example, which is a mashup of the standard ABAB followed by what on its own would have been an AABB.

Every single drink I drink 

Makes me think of you 

And the more I start think 

The more I’m missing you (repetition)

Blurry vision, misty eyes 

Drunk on longing, feelin’ high 

Tomorrow I’ll have time to feel regret 

Tonight, I’m just trying to forget

The chorus of Little Mix's “Black Magic” is also a great illustration of this rhyme scheme.

As you can see, this compound rhyme scheme has very strong connections yet never gets a chance to feel predictable or boring. So definitely worth using!

I will make a side note here; repetitions are not considered a rhyme. However, they do reinforce the sonic connection between two lines, so for the purpose of the analysis that we're doing, I always mark any repeating lines as lines with matching rhymes (with the same letter).

Conclusion

As you can see, there are so many rhyme schemes to choose from. I didn't cover every single one, just the most common ones to help get you started. My personal recommendation is to try to first figure out how "stable" or "unstable" your topic and the emotional state of your song is supposed to be. Then try to find an appropriate rhyme scheme that matches that. Also, it's always worth trying to move the order of your lines around to see how the lyrics flow differently. If you currently have AABB, swap lines two and three and you'll get ABAB. How does that sound? What if you were to not rhyme lines one and three instead? Does XAXA seem to flow better?

Experiment and see what gives your lyrics that interesting push that matches what you're talking about. As always try multiple things out before setting on the one that works the best for this song. I hope that seeing the different rhyme schemes in use will help free up your lyrics and bring in some fresh ideas into your songwriting!