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Music has sound, but so do lyrics.
Yes, even without music, the words themselves have sound.
And the sound of the words can carry meaning.
One way that words have sound is called onomatopoeia. This, as you probably remember, is when the word sounds like what it means. Words like crash, crackle, and smack are examples of onomatopoeia.
But onomatopoeia can be way cooler. Here’s a line from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
In this case, the sounds of the whole line echo what is being described. Read it out loud a few times. Do you hear the hum and buzz of the bugs? The sounds and the combination of the sounds that we use to make words, make the sound of those kinds of evenings.
But this is only the beginning–the sounds of words and lines of verse can be even more suggestive.
Phonetic intensives are onomatopoeia on steroids.
Here are examples of what Arp and Johnson call phonetic intensives (excerpted from Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Eighth Ed.)
- the sound fl often suggests moving light, as in “flame,” “flare,” “flash,” “flicker”
- gl often suggests unmoving light: “glare,” “glow,” “gleam,” “glisten”
- sl is often associated with wetness: “slippery,” “slick,” “slide,” “slime,” “slushy”
- st often suggests strength: “staunch,” stalwart,” “sturdy,” “stable,” “stern,”
- short i often indicates smallness: “inch,” “imp,” “thin,” “little,” “bit,” “kid,”
- the tt in the middle of a word often suggests sudden movement, as in “spatter,” “scatter,” “shatter,” “rattle,” “clatter,” “batter”
This list is just the beginning of the incredible sound resources that are available to the poet to add meaning through the sound of words. You don’t have to memorize this list in order to write poetry, for one think the list is incomplete. The other reason is that you already know it. We all do. This isn’t stuff that a bunch of poetry nerds invented. They discovered it–it’s in our language. We just don’t think about it. Poets think about it. Good songwriters are poets. Good songwriters will consider how their lyrics sound.
If you want to communicate a peaceful beauty, don’t use too many r or k or t sounds because these sounds are not peaceful or beautiful. If you want the worshipers to feel happy don’t use “slow,” “deep,” “moon,” or any others that sound sad like these do.
Read the lines of your song out loud and listen to them. Use your ears and feel them coming off of your lips–are the sounds of the words in combination consistent with what you are trying to communicate? They don’t have to directly line up all of the time, buy the sounds certainly shouldn’t work contrary to your purposes.
I remember thinking it was funny that “love” was rhymed with “prove” in Joy to the World. I used to sing “And wonders of his lūve” to make my brother laugh. He always did.
John Stackhouse wrote a blog post some time ago in which he criticized Chris Tomlin’s lyrics, including his use of rhyme, or lack thereof.
The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes.
Perhaps it is true that Tomlin’s rhymes are not as thoughtful as they should be, but the fact that they don’t rhyme perfectly is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.
Perfect rhymes, that is, rhymes that repeat the final vowel and consonant sound exactly, can suggest things like innocence, stability, simplicity, certainty, and order. Imperfect rhymes, also called slant rhymes, can suggest the opposite. If you are writing a song of confession, slant rhymes might be just what you want. What song are you writing? How can you use rhyme to reinforce the meaning?
I like rhymes, not just because I am a Classicist, but because of what they suggest about the world. Songs that rhyme suggests a pattern of order and control–a stability and predictability. This order can be reflective of the Christian view of reality–indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place. We are acknowledging and finding comfort in God’s Providence. The order suggested by rhymes, despite the seeming chaos that surrounds us, suggest that God is in control.
Common Rhyming Problems
There is such a thing as a bad rhyme. And there are other rhymes require caution in their use. Here’s my partial list:
- feet/seas: the “close enough” rhyme — the fancy word for this sort of thing is “assonant rhyme.” Assonance is the term that describes a repetition of vowel sounds. A rhyme is created by both the vowel and consonant sound. I’ve not made up my mind how much of a sin I consider “assonant rhyme” to be. Stackhouse thinks they indicate a lack of skill or patience. Perhaps he’s right.
- out/out: the same-word rhyme — there can be a good reason for rhyming a word to itself. Repetition is used for emphasis, so the word you rhyme with itself must be a pivotal word, poetically speaking. If it is not a word of significance, then take this opportunity to create a powerful effective rhyme.
- love/above: the cliché rhyme — the love/above rhyme is a cliché. This pair has appeared in hymns for centuries. Cliché is never OK.
- name/fame: the bad-diction rhyme — don’t sacrifice diction for rhyme. Don’t sacrifice rhyme for diction either. The point is, don’t sacrifice. I always wince in that song that uses the name/fame rhyme. Yes, God is interested in his glory, in being known in all lands, but this is not the same as seeking fame. That’s what people on American Idol do.
- jewel/fool: the forced rhyme — the bad diction rhyme is when you use an inferior word, just because it rhymes with a good one. A forced rhyme is when you bring in two inferior words just because they rhyme.
- up/cup: the “Oh, Come On” rhyme — this means you’re not even trying.
All songwriters know about rhythm. I think rhythm is a requirement for corporate worship–some rhythmic consistency contributes to the “singability” of a song.
Rhythm can be restrictive, but real poets seem to be able to use the perfect word in the perfect place, without sacrificing meaning or rhythm.
Sometimes we find metrical variations in poems. In the best poetry, these variations are purposeful. In an inferior poem or song, the metrical variation is a result of the “close enough” mentality.
“Nature’s First Green is Gold”
To illustrate the function and power of sound and rhyme, I offer Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Again, there is so much that we could talk about in this poem. The first line alone includes personification, metaphor, and paradox, and does so in such a simple and subtle way, that all this poetic activity doesn’t interfere with the simple sense of the line. I will offer a short analysis focusing only on the sound, rhyme, and rhythm.
There is alliteration in the first line: “green is gold.” The alliteration is not simply for the sake of alliterating; these words carry the central purpose of the poem.
Line 2, alliterates the h sound. This is the lightest, most ethereal sound in our phonetic collection, and it’s describing the ethereal beauty of nature’s first green. Contrast this line with line 7; where the d sound is alliterated. This sound is the heaviest, most terrestrial of sounds. See how the sounds echo the sense of these lines?
The whole poem is filled with long vowels. Read line 4 out loud. The sounds are of the same sad regret that the words convey.
The rhythm is regular, except for in the first and last lines. The metrical variation emphasizes “Nature’s first green” and “Nothing.” These words frame the poem and carry the movement from elusive beauty to its loss.
Poets utilize every possible resource to communicate an experience to their readers. What is their motivation? Surely none have a purpose more important than the poets who write lyrics that will be used in the praise and worship of the King of the Universe.
Some thought, then, might be given to the sound of the lyrics even before the music is added, some thought to the rhymes and rhythms and what they communicate above and beneath the meaning of the words.
Posts in this series:
The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)
The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)
The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)
The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)
The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)
The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)
The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)
The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)