Imperfect or Perfect Rhymes?

Lately I have found myself in the midst of discussions about rhyming with my musical theatre friends.  Should an imperfect rhyme be used?  Why be obsessed with perfect rhyming when the meaning is all important?  After arguing against perfect rhyming one lyricist sang the first verse of his song and it was clear that it was not an imperfect rhyme he was using, but assonance, "that's OK!" we replied, assonance is good.  He was very relieved!

The great Mr Sondheim has this to say about imperfect rhyming:

"True rhyming is a necessity in the theatre, as a guide for the ear to know what it has just heard.  Our language is so complex and difficult, and there are so many similar words and sounds that mean different things, that it's confusing enough without using near rhymes that only acquaint the ear with a vowel... [A near rhyme is] not useful to the primary purpose of a lyric, which is to be heard, and it teaches the ear to not trust or to disregard a lyric, to not listen, to simply wash over you."

Emily Dickinson was fond of near rhymes:

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all"

Poetry is not the same as the lyric of a song, it goes to a different place in the brain... a lyric has to sing out and also thrust itself home, so that we know and understand the words.  I have a feeling Mr Sondheim is right.  It is difficult, it does take hours trying to find the right rhyme sometimes, but I don't think that this stops us having freedom of expression - limitations have a freedom in themselves.


  1. Just a thought about Sondheim's rhymes (or anyone's really). They work beautifully in an American accent but not always in other accents. So when performing a Sondheim musical in an English accent you are sometimes forced to distort the vowel and the accent for the sake of the rhyme. I wonder what Sondheim would say about that?

  2. Very good point Mark!

    The Potato Tomato problem!!!!


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