We're all familiar with the concept of lyrical rhymes. For example, the words through, curfew and blue all rhyme despite being spelled differently because the sound of their final syllable is the same.

But if you're analyzing instrumental, i.e. non-verbal music, does it make sense to say that two musical phrases rhyme?

Consider the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony:

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Could you say the second four-note phrase rhymes with the first? If we can agree that rhyme is a helpful musical term, what might the rules be? For instance, in the Beethoven example, if the second phrase ended with a leap up to a D rather than down to a D, would that still be a rhyme?

Or is rhyme too vague and ill-specified to be useful as a term of musical analysis?

BTW, I did try googling for this but got lots of hits related to songs for small children, rather than technical terminology for musical analysis.

  • Motif sometimes motive might fit.
    – Tim
    Mar 4 '20 at 13:32
  • 1
    curfew does not rhyme with the others due to difference in syllabic emphasis, George& Ira Gershwin notwithstanding. :-) Mar 4 '20 at 14:45
  • 1
    @CarlWitthoft - just omit the cur... That's dogged determination!
    – Tim
    Mar 4 '20 at 14:55
  • You say potato… Mar 4 '20 at 14:58
  • +1 for making me think about this from a new perspective. And unrelated: can anyone back up @CarlWitthoft's rhyme definition? I don't remember emphasis/syllabic stress being a criterion for rhyming that I learned, but I'm not an expert...
    – user45266
    Mar 5 '20 at 0:44

That particular choice of two four-note phrases I think doesn't "rhyme" particularly well. The first sequence goes G G G Eb (down a major third), the second goes F F F D (down a minor third), and the rhythm varies too. But if I have understood correctly, you might be referring to cases where there is a more direct mapping between phrases, for example if the second phrase maintained all the intervalic relationships, but modulated to a different key.

In that case, I think we call it a "Sequence". here's the Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequence(music)

I actually wasn't aware of this until I googled "modulated ostinato" and clicked around. We would have typically called this a motif (repeated musical idea) or an ostinato (type of motif where a melodic line in same voice is repeated) if it weren't for the change of key.

To be fair, there is a lot of ambiguity in differentiating between some of these concepts. Consider the Encyclopedia Britannica's definition of ostinato: "short melodic phrase repeated throughout a composition, sometimes slightly varied or transposed to a different pitch." The words "sometimes slightly varied or transposed" are interesting; under this definition, ostinato entirely captures the definition of a sequence.

So to summarise, depending who you ask this could be called a motif, an ostinato or a sequence.

That being said, because the example you gave has two fairly distinct four note phrases, and I am finding it hard to see how they might "rhyme", I may have jumped the gun, misunderstood what you were asking, and answered a different question!


Music is full of imitation, and of 'question and answer' phrases.

There are many techniques of musical imitation - a fragment is echoed, maybe transposed, inverted or otherwise modified, but it's a recognisable repetition. And there are many techniques of rhyming - the simple match of a final syllable or more complex internal echoes.

We don't usually use the term 'rhyme' in music. The concepts are obviously similar. But I'd stick to the recognised musical terms when describing music. There are plenty!

  • "We don't usually use the term 'rhyme' in music" Without context, that's a funny one :)
    – user45266
    Mar 5 '20 at 0:45

As @Tim mentioned in comments, you should identify this musical element as a motif. In purely musical terms a motif is basically a melodic element that lasts roughly 1 or 2 beats.

Many musical terms map over to linguistic or literary terms, but of course there is no absolute matching so we need to be careful about the comparisons we make.

I have seen music theory that associates rhyme with the endings of musical periods. That's your common "question/answer" or "antecendent/consequent" pairing of 8 bar phrases with the first ending on a dominant and the second ending on a tonic. The two ending chords are then analogous to rhymed words and the two 8 bar phrases are analogous to a rhymed couplet.

The Beethoven motif is not a musical period. So rhyme probably is the device to compare.

On thing you can do is associate musical beat units with word units. I mean that a beat is roughly equal to a word. Syllables of a word are then subdivisions of the beat. Motifs then are analogous to a word or a very short phrase.

Notice that the Beethoven motif is repeated. It's almost an exact rhythmic repeat (the second iteration is held longer) but pitch is changed upon the repeat.

So: repeat but change it a little.

A famous line that comes to mind is: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

In terms of duration, stress, repetition with variation, that seems like a good comparison to me.

The literary device is called anaphora (had to look it up!)

I think you could make some comparison to alliterative verse or assonance, but those units are maybe much shorter or suggest a repeated tone or chord.

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