Here’s a verse from The Dream Shatterer by Big Pun, where I’ve highlighted some of his rhymes.

Ayo, I shatter dreams like Jordan, assault and batter your team Your squadron'll be barred from rap Like Adam and Eve from the garden I'm carvin' my initials on your forehead So every night before bed, you see the BP shine off the boardhead Reverse that, I curse at the first wack nigga with the worst rap 'Cause he ain't worth jack Hit him with a thousand pounds of pressure per slap Make his whole body jerk back, watch the Earth crack Hand him his purse back I'm the first Latin rapper to baffle your skull Master the flow, niggas be swearin' I'm blacker than coal Like Nat King, I be rappin' in tongues Packin' the ones; Magnums, cannons and Gatling guns It's Big Pun, the one and only son of Tony Montana You ain't promised mañana in the rotten manzana Come on, pana, we need more rhymers Feel the marijuana, snake bite, anaconda A man of honor wouldn't wanna try to match my persona Sometimes rhymin', I blow my own mind like Nirvana Comma, and go the whole nine like Madonna Go try to find another rhymer with my kind of grammar

- The Dream Shatterer by Big Pun

There’s probably a few errors here, as the rhymes are so dense I got lazy highlighting things at the end. But think about this for a second. Some of these rhymes may not be obvious, like curse, per, and worth. Or skull and flow. Or own and whole. Or comma and grammar.

He makes them rhyme though, I promise.

The components of rhyming seem oddly elusive. Here’s Eminem rhyming with orange in a 60 minutes interview, a word that isn’t traditionally considered rhymable. His rhymes are great, but his description of how to match words is quite disappointing. He first suggests that you should make “orange” “more than one syllable” (it already is), that you have to “figure out the science to breaking down words”, and that rhyming is “just in the enunciation”. But what is that science? When, where, and how should you enunciate?

This post will be most useful to those that are interested in rap, because rhyming has a much more central role in the art. But even those that are not aspiring professional or even casual artists may find this valuable. They will learn about general topics of human-made sounds, and also perhaps grow a better appreciation for songs and lyrics, just like understanding the movie making process builds appreciation for movies.

Let’s dive in!

Phonology

Humans are able to make a variety of sounds with their mouths, but the set of sounds is limited. The three variable components are the tongue, lips, and throat. These variations are well studied, and you can find the full set of articulations that exist in human languages at ipachart.com. You may notice that some sounds are deemed possible to make, but don’t exist in any known language. And then there are sounds that are deemed impossible.

The crazy symbols that you see, like ʌ, ɔ, œ are called phonemes and represent sounds humans make. Symbols like these show up in dictionaries to help readers understand how to pronounce the words. There are a variety of pronunciation tools, but the most widely accepted set is the international phonetics alphabet, or IPA. Another word on transcription: the standard way of indicating the start and end of a phonetic transcription is with slashes. We’ll be using the IPA and slashes in this article.

As an example of how the IPA is used, the word “bear” is transcribed as /bɛər/ for American english. But there’s no single way to spell it, as it depends how a particular accent pronounces the word. Some accents would transcribe “bear” as /bɛə/, dropping the “r” sound.

In English, it turns out that how a word is spelled has some confusing and often inconsistent rules with respect to how the word should sound. A notorious example of this incongruity is with the letters “ough”. It turns out that this can be pronounced in 9 different ways, as shown by these representative words: rough, plough, through, though, thought, thorough, cough, hiccough, and lough (ends in a “k” sound!).

You may have heard of the “long” and “short” vowels, perhaps in elementary school. These words aren’t that precise, because these phonemes aren’t always stated for a longer or shorter time. But it’s a quick way to remember 10 phonemes – the long and short versions of “a”, “e”, “i”, “o”, “u”. With respect to spelling, I did want to point out one surprising thing. In the American dialect, the “short o” phoneme does not involve rounding your lips. Say “top” or “box” out loud, and you’ll see what I mean. “Nacho” and “father” use the same phoneme, which is /ɑ/. In British english, the rounded version is used: /ɒ/. It’s possible you’re slightly in between the two.

I have one more thing to teach you: allophones. The Oxford dictionary introduces this perfectly: “Allophone - any of the various phonetic realizations of a phoneme in a language, which do not contribute to distinctions of meaning. For example, in English an aspirated p (as in pin ) and unaspirated p (as in spin ) are allophones of the phoneme /p/, whereas in ancient Greek the distinction was phonemic.” And to use the dictionary again, aspirated means “pronounced with an exhalation of breath”.

What this is saying is there are multiple ways to pronounce the “p” sound, but they don’t have any difference in meaning. On the other hand, phonemes are defined as “any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.”

When it comes to rhyming, we only really care about phonemes, and not allophones, because we just care that the listener of the rhyme understands the words. Playing around with their allophones won’t introduce confusion, and will just allow for creative wiggle room.

Rhyme Time

Here’s a quick and rough guide on how to find a word that rhymes with another word:

  • Use the same phonetic vowel (or similar)
  • Use a matching type of ending consonant sound
    • The types are shown in https://www.ipachart.com
    • All nasals match (m, n, ng)
    • Some plosives (p, b, d, t) along with some fricatives (s). The front top of your mouth.
    • Other plosives (k, g). The back of your mouth.
    • Ch, sh
    • Some don’t match too well (sh, f, z, v, l, r)
    • If the vowel sound is at the end, that works for anything

Examples

Rhyme “Sam”

I first break down the word. The vowel sound is /æ/. Then I look at “m” at the end of the word. That’s in the “nasal” category. So I can create rhymes like this: bang, tan, lamb, van, sang, fan.

Rhyme “Fate”

This vowel sound is two phonemes stuck together: /eɪ/. The /e/ sounds like the vowel in “bell” and the /ɪ/ sounds like the the vowel in “bee”.

Note: I’m lying a bit here. Bell is really pronounced /bɛl/. The /e/ sound doesn’t show up by itself in American accents, but it does in combination with other phonemes.

The “t” is a plosive on the front of the mouth, so these would work well: made, grape, stay, taste, day, date.

Phonology II

Diphthongs

Diphthongs are two vowel phonemes that are a single syllable. Take “right” as an example. The vowel starts with a sound similar to “calm” or “spa” and ends with a sound similar to “bee”. This word is transcribed as /ɹaɪt/. Note the two middle symbols – that’s the diphthongs /aɪ/.

R, L combinations

See how similar these sound: fret, bet, wreck, met, air. Now try these: rut, mut, duck, truck, sup, dull. You might have noticed that the last word hardly rhymes with the others. That’s because the “r” and “l” letters can make a vowel sound quite different.

They have such an impact that in American English, there are some vowel sounds that exist only in tandem with these letters. Take “bird”, pronounced /bɜrd/. The /ɜ/ character won’t show up without an “r” next to it! /ʊr/ as in “pure” is another example of this.

Schwa

There’s one really special phoneme called the “schwa”. It’s the most common phoneme in English, and sounds like the “uh” sound. The reason it’s so common is that any vowel can be pronounced as a schwa. It shows up in unstressed syllables. Take “banana” for example. The first and last syllables are unstressed, and thus make the schwa sound. If you haven’t tried it out loud, you should!

When it comes to rhyming, this is critical to know because it shows up so often. Let’s get acquainted by looking at some examples:

  • It’s in the second syllable in pencil, cousin, basement, apron, cemetery, sofa.
  • It shows up twice in constitution
  • Words that ends in -tion are pronounced /ʃən/.
  • The word “the” (the unstressed form, not /ði/ like in “bee”)

A Phonology cheat sheet

Here’s a list of nearly all of the vowel phonemes in English. There are a few that are missing depending on the accent, but this is the bulk of them. Ipachart.com has the whole list, but doesn’t include diphthongs nor does it stress the r modified phonemes.

  • “short” vowel
    • /æ/ - cat (“short a”)
    • /ɛ/ - egg (“short e”)
    • /ɪ/ - it (“short i”)
    • /ɑ/ - box (“short o”)
      • Note your lips aren’t rounded!
      • “Nacho”, “father”
    • /ʌ/ - up (“short u”)
    • /ʊ/ - book
    • /ә/ about (schwa)
  • R modified, to english american phonemes
    • /ɑr/ - car
    • /ɛr/ - air
    • /ɪr/ - ear
    • /ər/ - letter
    • /ɔr/ - orange
    • /ɜr/ - bird
    • /jʊɹ/ - pure
  • “Long” vowels and diphthongs
    • /eɪ/ - fait (“long a”)
    • /i/ - bee (“long e”)
    • /aɪ/ - ice (“long i”)
    • /oʊ/ (GenAm) - oat (“long o”)
    • /ju/ - mute (“long u”)
    • /u/ - moon
    • /aʊ/ - cow
    • /ɔɪ/ - oyster

Close vowel sounds

If the vowels are close enough, the words will rhyme just fine. Let’s look at a few:

  • /ʌ/ as in “up” and /ә/, the schwa, as in “about”.
    • You can read a long description of how they’re different, but the main points are that they sound the same but only one of them is “stressed”, while the other is “reduced”. For rhyming, they’re the same. “About” and “hunt trout” rhyme just fine :).
  • /ɜr/ and /ər/ like “bird” and “letter”
  • /ɑ/ as in “cot” /ɔ/ as in “caught”
    • Identical for about half the US, so you can easily use these interchangeably.
  • /ә/ and /ɑ/ are different, but close
  • /ә/ and /ɪ/ are close. “Lotion” and “toe skin” can be made to rhyme.

Enunciation

Now let’s get back to Eminem. He suggests that the key to rhyming is enunciation, and I tend to agree with him. Let’s play around with some examples.

Let’s start with orange. In the video, Eminem rhymes this with door hing, four inch, porridge, and george. It turns out the first three already “rhyme” based on my new definition. It’s /ɔr/ (“or sound”) followed by /ɪ/ (“short i”). Now, the first two sound a bit better because there is an “n” after the /ɪ/, and the first one sounds even better because it has the full /ɪndʒ/ (“enj sound”) at the end of the word. But “george” is rather interesting – it’s a single syllable. You can either change orange or george, or both, such that they sound more similar.

There’s a different neat thing Eminem does with “oranges” in Business by rhyming it with “the hinges” and “syringes”. Only the stress changes. Instead of stressing the first syllable like in the name “Oren”, he stresses the second like in the sentence “is she out, or in?”

There are really many ways to bend words. Here some other common methods:

  • “In” can make an “an” sound, like in rhyming “bank” and “drink”
  • “Practical” and “master stew” can be rhymed by replacing the “al” sound with the “oo” sound
  • “il” can be pronounced “eel”, like in rhyming “kneel” and “fill”
  • “ell” can be pronounced “ail”, like in rhyming “mail” and “sell”
  • There are many more examples in A Phonetic Analysis of Rap Lyrics

Remember to ignore spelling

We mentioned spelling at the beginning of the article, and I want to call it out again because it can be really surprising and wacky. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is really complex, so it’s easier to think of them as “mostly unrelated”, especially when it comes to vowels. Take a careful look through these examples where the sound matches but the spelling doesn’t.

  • Igloo, busy, build, england (short i)
  • Up, flood, son (short u)
  • Egg, friend, many, said, read in the past (short e)
  • Bee, people, ski (long e)
  • Find, buy, height (long i)
  • Book, wolf, pull, could (/ʊ/)
  • Bird, heard, absurd, sure, her (/ɜr/)
  • Taught, sauce, dawn (/ɔː/)
  • Moon, flute, crew, through, fruit, shoe, maneuver (/uː/)
  • Cow, shout, bough, hour (/aʊ/)
  • Fail, baby, vein, great, straight (/eɪ/)
  • Coin, boy, buoy, employ (/ɔɪ/)
  • Mute, feud, beauty, view, you (/ju/)
  • Bear, lair, share, rare, prayer (/ɛr/)
  • Here, sphere, year, near, pier (/ɪr/)
  • Sore, porridge, war, tourist (/ɔr/)

Deconstructing Lyrics

It’s time to put all this new knowledge together by analyzing how some popular lyrics rhyme.

Blank Space - Taylor Swift

So it's gonna be forever Or it's gonna go down in flames You can tell me when it's over, hmm If the high was worth the pain Got a long list of ex-lovers They'll tell you I'm insane 'Cause you know I love the players And you love the game

So what are all the phonemes?

  • /ɛ/, /ʌ/
  • /ər/
  • /ɪ/
  • /eɪ/
  • /ə/

This is somewhat simple. The rhyme scheme is A B A B A B A B, with some multisyllabic rhymes. And though /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ don’t typically rhyme, the second part of the word helps it sound fine.

Lose Yourself - Eminem

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin' What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out He's chokin', how, everybody's jokin' now The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow

  • /ɑ/
  • /ar/, /ә/, /ɔr/
  • /ɛ/
  • /i/
  • /oʊ/
  • /aʊ/
  • /ɪ/
  • /ә/

Whew, that’s a bunch of rhyming. The orange highlighted parts (/ɑr/, /ɑl/, /ɑ/) all rhyme well because he makes the “r” and “l” mostly silent. The teal parts (/ar/, /ә/, /ɔr/) can all rhyme because they’re not the last syllable of the line word. Other than that, it’s all straightforward – just very dense.

Does this really help?

Let’s circle back. We’re now at the end of the article and I’ve hopefully taught you a few neat things, but you may not be convinced that this will help in the most basic way that I said it would: that it would improve your ability to rhyme. While I think it won’t help you immediately, I believe it can be a useful framework for thinking about rhymes.

One of my favorite books, Peak, talks about how mental representations are the fundamental powerful building blocks that separate the masters of some skill (Chess, Soccer, Surgery, etc) from the novices. It takes years of practice to build these sorts of mental representations, but the foundations can often be built quickly through helpful resources, frameworks, and teachers. I think this can serve that role.

It’s possible that nearly all rappers don’t know anything about phonology. But that doesn’t mean that this knowledge isn’t useful. Theory shows up in many disciplines for good reason. A closely related example would be music theory. You have the concept of notes, scales, harmony, beats, melody, form, and more. These are well studied and have descriptive vocabulary to characterize a wide variety of concepts. I’d be astounded if someone without this theory could compose a substantially good piano song without this theory.

While some parts of rap have theory components, I’ve never heard of rhyming being studied in any expansive and logical way. What I’ve described here is a hint of what that might look like.

Rap possibly exists in a remarkable situation where there’s little theory (even outside of rhyming) and yet fantastic art. Maybe that’s part of its allure. It’s accessible to anyone that knows a language. They just have to practice without prescribed structure and think carefully about what sounds good. Maybe each rapper comes up with their own frameworks in the variety of song components. I honestly don’t know!

Rhyming “about”

I’ll leave you with one last example in hopes that I might convince you that this framework is helpful. Try to rhyme the word “about”.

Actually, let’s make the game easier. Go look at rhyming dictionaries (I mentioned several at the end of this post). And then try to figure out a rhyme that’s not in any of those lists!

Here’s my answer, in a hasty rhyme.

You’re learning a bit about rhyming Deep dreams slits da mouth grinding Making gestures like you’re loud miming In it, you knit the crowd nice things

I came up with these rhymes by noticing:

  • I’m stuck with the “ow” sound. It’s the /aʊ/ diphthong, which doesn’t really have siblings.
  • Instead of a “t” at the end I can use similar plosives like “d” and “th”
  • The first syllable of “about” is the schwa, so that gives me some decent flexibility

You might just be stuck with rhyming dictionaries without these insights. But you can probably make better rhymes than me anyways :).

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