Creating the Poetic Sounds of Alliteration, Assonance, and Consonance

Wednesday, January 103 min read

Words are the basic building blocks of communication, but when used in certain patterns and formations, they also can have a musical quality. Stringing together words in a sentence isn’t just a method for getting an idea across — it’s a way to play with the harmony of language. Alliteration, assonance, and consonance are tools to elevate words into a symphony of sounds.

What Is Alliteration?

Why is “Taco Tuesday” better than “Taco Wednesday”? Alliteration — when two or more nearby words repeat their initial consonant sound. Alliteration helps to bind the words in a phrase together, which gives them a rhythm and melody. Here are some common examples:

Babbling brook

Captain Crunch

Dunkin’ Donuts

Grass is greener

Monster Mash

Red rose

Seven Sisters

Weeping willow

Alliteration is also known as “initial rhyme,” because unlike a traditional rhyme that repeats the final sound in words, it repeats the first sound in the paired words.

Many famous tongue twisters use alliteration. For example: “She sells seashells by the seashore” and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” The repeated consonant sounds create a fun and memorable cadence, helping each phrase to roll off the tongue like a lyrical melody.

Poets and writers also love alliteration. Gwendolyn Brooks used it in the poem “We Real Cool” to great effect: “We/ Lurk late. We/ Strike straight. We/ Sing sin.” Here, the alliterative repetition gives the poem a pulsing rhythm and beat.

Edgar Allan Poe famously featured it in the opening line of the poem “The Raven”: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary.” The repeated “w” sound establishes the haunting quality of the poem.

What Is Assonance?

Like alliteration, assonance is a repetition of sounds in multiple nearby words. However, this poetic sound is often called “vowel rhyme” because the repetition is within the vowels. While alliteration can create a bold effect, assonance tends to be softer and more melodic. Here are some examples:

Sweet treats

No pain, no gain

Surf and turf

Chips and dip

Eyes on the prize

Rolling stone

Each of these phrases repeats the vowel sound, but not all of them are an exact rhyme. For example, the words “rolling” and “stone” don’t rhyme, but the “o” sounds in both words create a bond when they are paired together.

Songwriters frequently use assonance, and it’s particularly noticeable in hip-hop songs that rely on vowel rhymes to keep the rhythm flowing. For example, Eminem uses assonance in his 2002 song “Lose Yourself.” He repeats multiple “a” vowel sounds in the opening lines: “His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy. There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti.”

But assonance isn’t a modern invention. In "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," first published in 1915, poet T.S. Eliot uses a vowel rhyme scheme: "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky." The repeated “e” and “i” sounds create a gentle echo, showcasing the contemplative mood of the poem and enriching its melody and texture.

What Is Consonance?

Consonance occurs when consonant sounds are repeated in nearby words. However, consonance can occur anywhere in the word — beginning, middle, or end. This makes it one of the most flexible poetic sounds, helping to create different harmonies. Here are some examples:

All’s well that ends well

Pitter patter

Tick tock

Lone ranger

Twist and shout

Stroke of luck

Grand stand

As with the other poetic sounds, words that use consonance may or may not rhyme. Take the words “lone” and “ranger,” for example — those two words don’t rhyme, but they’re linked together by the “n” consonant sound.

Writers often use consonance to create “near rhymes” or “slant rhymes.” This is when a word isn’t an exact rhyme (as “cat” and “bat” are) but simply has the same sounds. Emily Dickinson was known for near rhymes, such as in the consonance of  “queen” and “afternoon.” William Wordsworth also used consonance in his poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”: “Ten thousand saw I at a glance,/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.” The repeated “s” sounds create a soft, flowing effect within the poem's structure.

Featured image credit: FreshSplash/ iStock

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