Rap: Partial Reporting on Partial Rhymes

I just don’t “get” rap music. That is not a value judgment, just my personal opinion, and your own may vary. The bad lyrics, the (lack of) music, the bling… it’s just not for me, I guess. However, one needs to keep an open mind, so I went and read an article about the rhyming qualities of rap at Scientific American

One of the redeeming qualities is that it rhymes. That is nice, but I prefer a good text and don’t bother too much about the rhyme. Still, it’s at least something.

Another rapper ... but with a good text! No it doesn't always rhyme ...

Another rapper… but with a good text! (Though it doesn’t always rhyme…)

There are different types of rhymes. The worst ones are just repeating the same word: “Silent Night, Holy Night” is not a good rhyme. Rhyming “tomorrow” with “on the morrow” isn’t that good either. It is actually the same word (one being an older expression) that means the same. A better example is rhyming “tomorrow” with “I’ll give you my (bone) marrow.” One needs to be quite aware about language, especially the English language, where the spelling is only loosely related to the pronunciation. Well, to my non-native speaker ears anyway. Luckily the Internet is full of rhyming dictionaries where you can find inspiration.

The recent study mentioned at Scientific Americen investigated such rhymes in rap texts. It found that rappers often use “partial rhymes.” For instance the “tomorrow” above could be rhymed with “follow.” That is a bad rhyme (“-orrow”/”-ollow”) because it differs on the middle consonant, and is used infrequently in rap texts. However other examples like “life” and “light” also differ, on the last consonant. They are used very frequently, according to the study. It seems that our brains interpret this differing consonant at the end as being similar.

Seems like an interesting study, right? For me, too, and when I read about the study at Scientific American‘s website, I wanted to know more (even when it was about rap). But although Scientific American is a reputable science popularizer (and part of the Nature Publishing Group), it made no reference to the original study. No link, no researchers, no institution, and several Google searches on the keywords only pointed back to this article. Basically, the sort of “studies show that the moon is made from cheese” and “scientists have found Nessie” articles one finds on less reputable sites. Shame on them.

And remember that last time I lauded Futurity for providing exactly that information? I think I know where I’ll find my science news in the future.

About Bruno Van de Casteele

Philosopher by education, IT'er by trade. Allround Armchair Skeptic, History Enthusiast, Father of Three. Twitter @brunovdc Personal website: www.puam.be
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44 Responses to Rap: Partial Reporting on Partial Rhymes

  1. sszorin says:

    A few rhymes do not make a piece music like a few bags of cement and a few steel beams do not make a bridge. Where is the MUSIC in rap ? ‘The Rap’ is a sign of degeneracy of our culture. This obnoxious noise, this ghetto posturing phenomenon should be suppressed by force.

    • Adrian says:

      First of all, rap is a lyrical style that began in hip hop, which stems from spoken word music and poetry. Rap can be musical on its own, but it is often the hip hop music, and derivatives, that turn it into music proper. Hip hop has brought A LOT of variation into modern music, influenced many modern musicians, and contributed a ton to dance, poetry, visual arts, etc. If you don’t consider it music or art, then you aren’t paying attention.

  2. Rachel says:

    I find it very odd that you can’t find ANY rap with good lyrics or music and that isn’t about bling. If all you’re doing is catching a little of what’s on the popular music stations on your radio then I’m not surprised, but there is a plethora of lyrically complex and engaging rap music out there. You have to dig a little, but it’s definitely worth it.

      • Bram Kaandorp says:

        Greydon Square is a big one.

      • Dave Noel says:

        MC Frontalot, MC Chris, the Wordburglar, MegaRan(Random), MoreLess, Optimus Rhyme, etc… Pretty much any of the nerd-core hip-hop scene. Their music caters to the nerdier and geekier crowd. Video games, fiction, fantasy, even math / science and skepticism are all expressed in professional hip-hop. Indeed, you can probably find “rap” music about any topic that you fancy. Not just the braggadocio laden porn-beats that dominate the top 40.

        If you pay attention to the beats, record scratches and underlying melodies, it’s actually nicely produced, rich and complex layering that all comes together to tell a story. If you have a problem with the style itself, well, that’s your inexperience showing.

        Some of the most innovative musical creators in history (Vagner, Barolo, Beethoven, etc…) were seen as creating cacophonous abominations, when their ‘new’ styles were getting worked out. But as people heard it more and more, they’re ears became attuned and they were hooked.

        People who are too quick to dismiss, often miss out on so much.

        • Dave Noel says:

          Also, Mike Doughty, or Soul Coughing… Man that’s some creative stuff there. A lot of it is gibberish, but some of the lyrics make you think… some make you ‘squee’ with delight. But all of it can make you shake your rump. 😉

  3. William J Granger says:

    Is there really someone out there that doesn’t think rap is music besides me? I remember about 50 years ago though when my father thought I was nuts because I liked rock more than Frank Sinatra and Sammy Kahn. Out when my cousin got a Beatles album for Christmas and it was a crushing blow to the pillars of civilization. I have three sons who are separated oldest to youngest by 3 1/2 years. Older two like rock, the youngest loves rap. I often wondered where I went wrong.
    Even though rocks lyrics were often unintelligible, I could really dig the rhythm. But I find nothing redeeming about rap music, especially so-called gangsta rap.
    So could maybe this be a generational “rebellion” and not really anything to do with lyrics, rhyme or rhythm? What do my fellow skeptics think?

    • Merlo says:

      You have to understand the nuances of something in order to like it. I’m not saying you will start listening to gangsta rap any day now 🙂 but I find that when some subject is being tackled by many many people, there are bound to be some people out there who are doing it in a very skillful way, or in a way you would find pleasing, if you could ever get over the initial awkwardness of “wth is this thing!?”

      As someone who plays in a 70’s rock band and listens to hip hop in his free time, I can say a lot of rock music simply lacks rhythm. There are great rock songs, very musical, occasionally with clever lyrics as well, that just don’t groove in any way. I’ll gladly listen to them, but it’s highly unlikely I’ll start shaking my booty to them 🙂

  4. wordwizardw says:

    This Scientific American article is a seven-sentence paragraph. A lot of magazines wouldn’t devote the space to give references for such a snippet. However, an on-line version should include that. I think Scientific American can still be trusted when it comes to full articles, but you have caught them with their pants down.

  5. Steve Abell says:

    Rap is like any other style of music. If you go into it with an open mind and listen to a wide selection of the artists out there, you’re bound to find at least one that you can enjoy. You have to make the time and have the desire to really explore something outside your comfort zone.

  6. Bill Kowalski says:

    Scientific American recently sent me an invitation to renew my subscription that was in an envelope marked “past due invoice”, so I am pretty sure credibility isn’t what it used to be at that publication. On rap, it is a legitimate music genre, and has made its way into the mainstream. Some rap tracks are quite melodic as well as rhythmic so to say there’s no “music” in rap is to mischaracterize the genre.

    Yes, some rap glorifies criminality and various other low activities, but that’s generally the gangsta variety. Gangsta is a type of rap which dwells on low behavior. Not all rap works so hard at being offensive. I don’t think we should make the mistake of hating all rap music because of gangsta rap any more than we should hate all jazz simply because of that loathsome “smooth jazz” they play in airport shuttles and elevators.

  7. Walter Clark says:

    Here’s a rap song written by a PhD in economics. (The tune is better too.)

  8. Gman says:

    I listen to a lot of music, rock, folk, etc. In every genre there is music I don’t like. Frankly about 3/4.
    I have never heard a rap song that I want to hear again!

  9. DanielWainfleet says:

    “I want to hear MELODY. I don’t want some gangster poking his finger in my face and shouting at me.”–Neil Young, 2007, in Rolling Stone.

  10. David says:

    Devoid of harmony, utilizing predominantly childish and/or misogynistic, boring “poetry,” and performed for the most part by non-musical, tasteless, bling attired, semi-literate wankers utilizing drum machines, looped bass lines and boring, repetitive predictable rhythms, rap is predominantly and regrettably, a mirror image of the decadent, self-obsessed/indulgent, mocking, ugly, lowest common denominator worshipping culture that surrounds us. As such, it can be argued that rap is a legitimate art form, an accurate and sad reflection of what we’ve become, and a harbinger of the inevitable societal collapse that awaits us.

  11. Call me wally says:

    Mr Dunning, you obviously just don’t get “how to rap.”

    Let me teach you the basics.

    1. Shove a microphone the size of a Deluxe Burrito right up to your lips with your left hand.
    2. Use any words. Hate, racial slurs, cursing, sexual references, drugs, violence, it really doesn’t matter.
    3. Mumble your “lyrics” into your Burrito as unintelligible as possible.
    4. Grab your crotch with your right hand, then lift that hand way up high while pointing down. (repeat)
    5. Have your choir make grunting sounds into their Burritos during the whole performance.
    6. Repeat steps 1 through 5 about 30-40 times.

    Also be sure to wear sun glasses, lots of rings, necklaces, and a comfortable loose fitting ensemble.

    And last, yet the most important, change that pedestrian name of yours to something cool, like……… Bee Doonit… Bry To DaSky… or something along those lines.

    Your welcome.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Wow. You didn’t even address the author of the essay. His name is Bruno van de Casteele, not Brian Dunning. Brian Dunning is the name of the guy in the embedded video, not the author. And that description of rap is just… I mean, wow. Talk about a broad brush.

  12. James O'Connell says:

    I often wondered why the sound of rap makes me grit my teeth and I think a lot of the comments summed it up, although, of course they are very subjective. But now I can add that it has bad rhyme. The rhyme is of ten considered what makes it ‘clever’ but really it generally sounds like a very monotonous and droning monologue.

  13. Donna Henson says:

    I despise rap… but perhaps I should recuse myself. I am a trained opera singer. When a person spends years perfecting one piece of music… when there are conferences, coaches, and books that delve into the intricacies of one particular composer or various ways to execute particular kinds of music passages… when we spend our careers in meticulous study and practice to perfect our lives… well, I see nothing of the discipline – and frankly, of the beauty – of classical music in rap. That being said, I don’t see it in rock or country or most forms of music. Perhaps I am just a musical snob. Or maybe I am able to appreciate the hard work and dedication the singers I know put into their careers. You never see opera singers getting into trouble with the law for drug abuse, weapons charges, DUI, etc. That’s my bias.

    • dale ruff says:

      Opera singers are performers not artists. Artists, song writers, etc tend to live less conformist lives. I am sure opera singers also have problems but there are so few you rarely hear of them.

      Real artists put more than hard work and dedication into their work; they put their souls and lives and unlike trained opera singers, they take risks, push the boundaries, and create!

      • Wordwizard says:

        Opera singers are artists. They are singers and actors who cultivate their unique instrument and polish their craft. “I am sure opera singers also have problems but there are so few you rarely hear of them.”—HA! Look around outside of your little parochial area!

    • Gman says:

      I love classical music, I listen to it everyday. That said I cannot stand opera, I despise it to the nth degree. Whenever it comes on the classical station I listen to, I change the station. I don’t care how much training, studying, perfecting and practicing it takes to get it right, it makes my ears bleed. So in this respect, it is on a level equal to rap.

  14. wordwizardw says:

    Here are a couple of proto-rap songs:

    “(You’ve Gotta) Start Off Each Day With A Song (Even When Things Go Wrong)” by Jimmy Durante:
    https://youtu.be/23NWI_wTgZg w/Bing Crosby
    https://youtu.be/57ObfHGuaco on Ed Sullivan
    https://youtu.be/XcIavTY0gz4 w/Jimmy Durante on the piano,
    though this song was probably NOT an influence on later rap, and

    “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by beat poet Gil Scott-Heron:

  15. Swampwitch7 says:

    I must confess that the only rap out there that broadcasts words I actually understand is Sir Mixalot’s *I Like Big Butts* which validates real figures on real women as sexy and desirable (and is wonderfully funny like Oueen’s *Fat Bottom Girls* and almost anybody’s version of *Anna from Indiana* from the world of barbershop.

    To use the same old cliché; “I don’t know if it’s Art, but I know what I like.*

    So, the rap style must be for those who like it, whether they understand it or not. That’s what diversity is all about.

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