Towards a Definition of a Chorus: How verse/chorus structure works.

There is no shortage of explanations of what a chorus is:  … the main part of the material, a section with a rising melody, the title of the song, a part that’s repeated, and so on. In most cases, all of these are to some extent adequate answers to the question “What is a chorus”. On the other hand, many of these characteristics are not exclusive to choruses, and are not useful as tools for analysis. Melody rising? That could be true of any section of a song. Title of the song? That’s equally true of the A section of AABA or 32 bar form: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away” is without question the main part of “Yesterday”, the part we all join in on when we sing along. But it is also NOT a chorus, as we don’t have verse-chorus form. Similarly, and just staying with the Beatles, “Something ” “Oh Darling” “Lady Madonna” “Heh Jude”: all of these are songs in AABA (32 bar) form, there are no choruses. So “main part of the song” is perhaps not a particularly useful way of defining a chorus.

So, it seems to me that the more useful question to ask is not “What is a chorus?” but rather, “Is this a chorus?” As soon as we do that, we start to differentiate between characteristics that could apply to any section, and characteristics that apply uniquely to choruses.

There is a tendency to regard a chorus as a kind of entity: a section or block, a self-contained “bit” of a song. However, a chorus only exists as a structural element of a complete song. We can’t have a chorus in isolation, or a stand-alone chorus. When has anyone been to a concert and heard, “Hi, great to see you all here tonight, we’re going to start by playing a new chorus”? Additionally, even within a song, the chorus only exists alongside other, different structural elements: verses, bridges, middle 8’s etc. We can’t have a song made up only of choruses.

So a chorus can not be understood or defined in isolation, only in relation to the whole song, specifically to the material which precedes it, (usually a verse or bridge). This means that to answer the question “Is this a chorus?”, we need to have heard what comes before it. And then, for it to be a chorus, we need to hear that it’s different to those preceding sections in specific “chorus-like” ways. These differences need to meet distinct criteria, “chorus” criteria.

These are the criteria that help us answer the question “Is this a chorus?” and determine that what we’re hearing is a chorus and not another section of a song. And they’re the subject of this blog.

Lennon McCartney

 

The way I see it, there are 5 specific criteria or requirements. These are not exclusive, nor even all obligatory, but to summarise:

To have a chorus, you MUST have Requirement no 1, and you then need 3 of the other 4 Requirements (2 – 5). If this isn’t the case, you haven’t satisfied chorus criteria and moved on from your verse in a “chorus-like” way. And if that happens, you don’t have a chorus. If you’re working in verse-chorus structure, then you have a structural problem, perhaps a big problem. And like all structures where there’s a problem, there’s a risk that your song will collapse, and when that happens, you risk losing your listener.

The 5 Requirements for the changes in the material that will give us a chorus are these:

1. Moving into the home key, and/or an increased focus on the home key.

2. Different chords and/or a change in the chord pattern.

3. Different harmonic rhythm.

4. Different melodic rhythm

5. Different rhythmic or temporal placement of the melody.

 

Requirement Number 1.

The chorus is always in the home key.

Requirement Number 1 gets to be number 1 because it’s first, but also because it’s the only one of these which is obligatory. If you don’t meet Requirement Number 1, you do not have a chorus.

Chorus in the home key is almost the sine qua non of a chorus. I always see the chorus as a kind of “coming home”, a return after a journey, a place where you sit down and “take the weight off”: choruses always “sit”, they’re always solid and grounded. They’re the point in the song that provides the foundation and support, a bit like the vertical piers in a bridge (a real one), with the other material spanning between. To get that feeling of “coming home”, and for a chorus to fulfil that structural role, it needs to be in the home key.

As we saw above, we can’t talk about a chorus without looking at its relationship with the verse that precedes it. A chorus is a kind of anti-verse or non-verse … and vice-versa. Given that the chorus is built around the home key, in order for the the verse to be different, it has to do the opposite. So the verse can’t be built around the home key at least not in the same way.

Harmonically, a chorus is the part of the song where the feeling of the tonic is strongest, so the verse has to be where it’s weakest, or weaker. This is what gives us “verse-like” and “chorus-like” movement across the harmonic structure of the song. If the structural/harmonic system in a song were like the solar system, then the chorus would be closer to the sun (the tonic), while verses would be low-gravity planets further out. In contrast to a chorus, what we’re looking for in verses is to weaken or escape the harmonic pull of the tonic. If you wanted to generalise on what this feels like, choruses are more harmonically grounded, while verses are usually more harmonically ambiguous and “floaty”.

In practical terms, these differences manifest themselves in a number of ways. Verse chord patterns have a tendency to keep away from the home key, sometimes for long periods. For example, the verse is where you’ll find the long, meandering 8 bar chord patterns of songs like “Hotel California” or Muse’s “Uprising”. If you have an 8 bar chord pattern, you’ll be away from the home key for the majority of those. The verse is also the place where you might find more ambiguous chords containing suspended or altered notes such as seconds, 4ths 6ths, 7ths etc., or harmonic work around the relative minor, or even verses that are in different keys altogether. You’ll also find bass guitarists not playing root notes, guitarists not quite playing fully-voiced chords, keyboard players slipping in in-between or substitute notes, and no matter who plays them, chords in their harmonically weaker first or second inversions. You’ll find instrumental lines that blur and smudge anything that would define or reinforce the home key, or even any key for that matter: take as an example the simple two-note guitar part in the verse of Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit”. It’s not until we get to the chorus that the guitar plays fully-voiced chords. Those two guitar notes in the verse could be part of almost any chord.

As for the verse chords themselves, we’ll see less of the tonic but also its closest pal the dominant. We’ll see more of chords around the second, versions of the subdominant, relative minor (on the 6th), and even the 7th (where for example, if you’re in A, you’d just drop down to a G). In comparison to the dominant, these are all “weak” chords, they don’t drive towards a resolution on the tonic in the same way that a V-I cadence does.

In contrast to what happens in verses, the chorus is where we’ll find chords that reinforce the tonic, and as nothing says “home key” more than a V-I chord progression – and to a lesser extent IV-I – those are the 3 chords that you’re likely to see more than any other: I, IV, V. (If I had a dollar for every chorus that went round those three chords, I wouldn’t be writing this blog – I’d be sitting round the pool, dictating it to one of my secretaries.) You’ll also see fully-voiced chords, the bass instrument playing the root notes, and instrumental lines that reinforce rather than smear the sense of tonality. Basically, you’ll find everything that’s the opposite of what you get in the verse, which is, of course, the point of the exercise.

(Of course, none of these are absolutes, they’re all relative, “in comparison to”. For example, while you’re more likely to find extended or ambiguous chords in a verse, it doesn’t mean they mightn’t appear in a chorus. It’s just that if they do appear in a chorus, then you’re likely to find more of them in a verse, and if that’s not the case, then other approaches to achieving a more “non-tonic” feel in the verse (for example, leaving out the bass). Nor are the techniques and approaches I’ve outlined above exhaustive. There are other ways to make a verse less tonic-centric, and the same for the chorus in reverse. Finally, any of these techniques can work together to offset approaches that might at first appear contradictory to what we’re trying to achieve.)

We can look at how this works in practice in Highway to Hell, which I’ve analysed in a bit more depth elsewhere on this blog.

The verse, for all its riffing glory, has no dominant chord  – well, accept as a held chord in the 2 bars before the chorus. In the verse, we get the tonic, then a first inversion of the subdominant, followed by a chord on the 7th. We stay away from the home key for bars 2 and 3, but then when we do return to it, it’s in bar 4, the weakest bar in a 4-bar pattern. We also then further rob the tonic of its power by staying on it when we start the pattern again. As chord sequences go, staying on the same chord from the last to the first of a repeating chord pattern is weak, certainly in comparison with a V-I or IV-I cadence. AC/DC use this device to effectively undermine the pull of the tonic at this point. (In guides to songwriting it’s often suggested to avoid this “same chord on weak to strong bars”, for precisely this reason: you lose the impact that the strong bar should bring. As chord movements go, it’s “flat”.)

That’s the verse: we have a weak or weakened sense of tonic and of “home”. So when we get to the chorus, we’re looking to do the opposite and reinforce the tonic. AC/DC don’t let us down. What we have is a two-bar pattern that sits on the tonic for the whole of the first bar, then uses a tonic-reinforcing IV-I cadence to end the cycle. This is in marked contrast to the verses, where we don’t stay on the tonic much at all, and there is no harmonic movement whatsoever between the end of one cycle and the start of the next. The two bar cycle also reinforces the tonic, simply because we come round to it more often than with the longer verse pattern. Another aspect to this is that in the verses, there’s no bass guitar, while in the chorus, not only does the bass join in, but for much of the 2-bar chorus pattern, it pedals the root note, even when the chords change. Here we see how the verse works as an anti-chorus, a bit like a harmonic void: by omitting the bass, not only do we not reinforce the tonic, we don’t reinforce any chord. They’re cut lose from the fundamental. By contrast, in the chorus, simply by being there the bass gives a clear shape to the chords and thus the tonically-focused harmonic movement. All of these techniques reinforce the home key in the chorus, while weakening and undermining it in the verse.

It’s a similar story with Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, which I’ve also looked at here in the blog. Just briefly, in the verse, with that ascending chord pattern and then the Bridge on the subdominant, the tonic is nowhere much to be seen. Then we get to the chorus, where it’s hammered home, this time through the use of those 3 essential chords: I IV V, and like in Highway to Hell, through a shortened pattern.

So, chorus: Always in the home key, always focused on the home key, and you always move to the home key from whatever comes before. If you have what you think is a chorus, and it’s not in the home key you don’t have a chorus, most probably because you don’t have a song in verse-chorus structure, also most probably because you’re in some kind of 32 bar, AABA form. (I’ll be talking about this form in another blog.) A chorus anchors the song, it’s the “hands in the air” moment, the moment you and your listener return to throughout the song, and the “lift” moment. To get that solidity, that power, that sense of being grounded, it has to be in the home key.

Requirement Number 2.

Different chords or a change in the chord pattern.

If you have a verse that’s rotating around I IV V, and then hit the chorus and continue to whip around I IV V … you’re in trouble. Maybe you have a get out of jail card somewhere else in what you’re doing, but if you want your chorus to be more than just a variation of your verse, the chords need to change. Sure, you can change the melody, but if the underlying chords don’t change, that’s only going to read as a variation, not as a change. And as the Chinese Proverb says, if you don’t change direction, you’ll end up where you’re going.

So if we don’t change from the verse … we’re still working with a verse, and your listeners will still read it as a verse. We can get a good picture of what happens here if we represent a verse as “A” and a chorus as “B”. In an ideal world, we want A B, probably followed by another A B. But if we don’t change the chords in the chorus, the B, what we actually end up with isn’t A B, but A A’ … which then often enough turns into A A’ A A’’ etc, with everyone sitting round wondering why the song isn’t going anywhere.

Much of the change in the chords when moving into a chorus centres around Requirement 1 above, the need for the chorus to be anchored in the home key. As we’ve seen, the subtext to anchoring the chorus in the home key is NOT anchoring the verse in the home key. So immediately, and in most cases, that’s going to require different chords in the chorus, chords that focus on the tonic, often also with increased use of the dominant. This, in contrast to the verse with its use of ambiguous, or “weaker” chords. Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is a textbook example: we get the movement through a range of chords in the verse, including the minor on the second, the subdominant, and all the usual suspects. And then in the chorus, what could be more obvious, but also provide more contrast, than simply rotating around I IV V?

While the use of different chords when we move into the chorus is often quite marked, it doesn’t have to be. In order for this requirement to be met, it’s enough that the chord pattern changes, whatever that change might be. Take Highway to Hell again. Much of the verse revolves around the D to G movement, with the melody lead by the f# of the D chord to the g of the G chord. In the chorus, this is simply reversed. Same chords (more or less), but in a different order. That great descending crang-crang (sorry!) of the G to D at the end of each pattern is one of the strongest elements of the song. But one of the reasons that it works so well is because we don’t have that chord order anywhere else. The chord pattern is different once you move into the chorus, and recognisably different at that.

Apart from moving the chords around, or simply using different chords – which is usually the best solution – another device is to have your chorus in a major key with your verse in a minor, especially the relative minor. Piano players know it well, as the simplest, white-notes-only movement, from C major down to a minor, while guitarists recognise it in the movement from G major to e minor, about as basic a change as you can have on the guitar.

Many songs use this approach, and it guarantees different chords between verse and chorus: Snow Patrol’s “Run” (a min to C maj) Green Day’s “21 Guns” (d min to F maj, which becomes e min to G Maj if you’re using drop tuning). “Hotel California” uses the same idea, though slightly more developed. The verse is in b min, the relative minor of the chorus’s D Major – but the chorus starts on the subdominant, the G, before dropping down to the tonic on the “fornia” of Cali-fornia.

When it comes to using different chords when you move into the chorus, there are of course endless, endless, possibilities, and there are almost as many ways of approaching this as there are songs or chord combinations. But no matter how it’s done, the requirement here is that the chord pattern is different between the chorus and the verse, in whatever way works for you and your material.

Requirement Number 3.

There must be a change in the underlying chordal rhythm.

The chordal rhythm is the rhythm of the chord changes, how and where they change in time. This can be at both the micro level, relative to the beat, or the macro level, relative to the bar or multiple bars

Our friends in AC/DC again provide the perfect illustration. Take Highway to Hell, considering just where and how the chords fall on the beat, the micro level. In the verse, except for bar one beat one, the chords are all pushed, they’re played as anticipations just before each beat. But in the chorus, that goes out the window. They’re all square, solidly on the beat, and for the most part, on strong beats (beats 1 and 3). Even the double-change at the end of each cycle in the chorus is on the beat, at beats 3 and 4.

Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone tells, surprise, surprise, a similar story, though the reverse of AC/DC. The chord changes in the verse, are all on the beat, on beats 1 and 3. In the chorus, while we still get changes on 1 and 3 to start with, the last chord in the pattern comes as an anticipation to beat 1 of the following bar, on the 4-and, the only place in the song where we get a “pushed” chord.

Another great example, and a really flagrant one because the actual chords themselves don’t change, is Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Verse chord changes – such as they are because it’s only the bass that actually follows the chords – are on the beat. Chorus? The first and third chord in the pattern is on the beat, but each second and fourth chord of the pattern is pushed earlier, the change on beat 3 coming on the upbeat before.

So, that’s at the level of the beat. At the global level, changes to the rhythm of the chord pattern is reflected in how and where chord patterns are repeated, i.e., the length of the pattern. What we see here is one of two possibilities. Either the chords are repeated more often in the chorus compared to the verse, i.e., with a shorter pattern. Or, of course, it’s the other way round, with the chorus having a longer pattern. Either of these suffice to give us what we need, a real change between the verse and the chorus, but they give quite a different “feel”. So depending on what result you’re after they’re not always interchangeable.

In general, songs that are more up tempo, more “rocky” for want of a better word, tend to move to a shorter pattern in the chorus. It brings energy and excitement, as there’s a telescoping of the content which ups the intensity.  We’ve seen already In Highway to Hell that we move from a 4 bar cycle in the verse to a 2 bar cycle in the chorus. This is identical to what we see in Like A Rolling Stone, (4 bars to 2 bars). Even in verses with longer 8-bar cycles, this is common, such as in a song like Hotel California, where the 8 bar verse cycle shortens to 4 bars in the chorus.

The shortening of the cycle obviously increases the sense of movement and drive, and ups the “something’s happening here” factor. But choruses can go the other way as well. However, lengthening the pattern in the chorus gives a very different feel to shortening it, as instead of more going on, we have a sense that everything is slightly spread out and even slowed down. This might be counter-intuitive, as we’re always looking for a chorus to lift, but this lengthening of the chord pattern is great for giving that kind of opening out, soaring feel. If you want an everyone-hold-your-cigarette-lighters-up moment, this is one way to get it, especially with songs that are a bit slower.

A really great example of how this is Snow Patrol’s “Run”. The underlying tempo is slow, around 75 bpm, and the verse is a simple, and of course, ambiguous, 2 bar loop, with chord changes on every half bar, at beats 1 and 3. The chorus on the other hand, expands everything out by a factor of 4, with changes coming only every 2 bars, giving a cycle which is not just doubled in length, but quadrupled, lasting a full, magnificent, 8 bars. The chorus really takes off. Of course, this feeling of opening out is helped along by changes to the arrangement etc., but its a great example of the kind of contrast that we need between the verse and chorus when it comes to changes in the underlying chordal rhythm.

So, to summarise: in comparison to the material that comes beforehand, whether it’s a verse or a bridge, the chord changes in a chorus need to fall differently. We need a change to the pattern, rhythmically, structurally, or as is often the case, both. Don’t just go round and round the same chords in the same way.

Requirement Number 4.

Different melodic rhythm.

This is one of the biggies, and often the most obvious indicator that we’ve moved from a verse into a chorus. It’s an either/or situation: either we have a melody made of shorter, more rhythmic notes in the verse contrasted with longer, less syncopated notes in the chorus… or we have the reverse.

Examples? Once again, our friend, Highway to Hell: the verse melody is entirely syncopated and across the beat, with short notes around a handful of pitches – in fact, much of the singing in the verse is around just 2 notes. It’s almost speech-like. The chorus on the other hand is a handful of long held notes, with the key moments coming on the beat – for example, both notes of High-Way are on strong downbeats, coming at 1 and 3. This is in contrast to the verse, where none of the sung notes occur on a beat, strong or otherwise.

Another great song that uses an identical approach, though with more words (and thus, more notes!), is Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”. The verse is full of text, but it’s hardly sung at all – or at least, it doesn’t feel like it. You can just read the lyrics out loud and get to pretty much what you have when he sings them in the song. Nearly all of the verse is syncopated across the beat. But then in the chorus, on “Down to the River”, we get long held notes, and much of the melody squared off and on the downbeat. Sure, there are still pushed notes and off-notes, but the melody is mainly built around the on beats, especially beats 1 and 3 (again) … take the second line in the chorus “and into the river we’d dive”, where IN-to, RIV-er and DIVE are all downbeats. Which once again uses the inbuilt accents of the music to reinforce the main content of the lyrics – if you sing only the notes that come on downbeats in the chorus, you still get the bulk of the story and content.

From Free’s “Alright Now” to Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” via Muse’s “Uprising” we see this kind of approach over and over again: a more rhythmically active verse, contrasted with a more rhythmically simple and “sung”, on-beat chorus. And while choruses using this approach usually have longer, held notes, it’s not always the case. Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” is rhythmic from beginning to end, the difference being that the verses are all off-beat and syncopated, while the chorus rhythms are somewhat simpler and much more built around the on-beats. It’s a similar story with the melody in Highway to Hell. We get on-beats and downbeats in the chorus, but none in the verse (OK, just the last line of each 8 bar section!). There’s a real shift in the melodic rhythm.

The other side of this either/or coin is where we do the reverse i.e., longer, squarer notes in the verse, juxtaposed with a shorter and more rhythmic chorus. The classic here would be a song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit“: that long, meandering, Beatlesque melody in the verse, sung almost completely across the beat, is contrasted in the chorus with short rhythmic phrases on lines like “Here we are now/Entertain us” each one a repetition of the same note, with more use of the downbeats. In this case, we have long notes in the verse, albeit syncopated, along with short, rhythmic notes in the chorus, albeit much more on the beat.

Something similar, though in a very (very!) different style happens in Katie Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”. Unusually, the verse is very “on”: almost every note is an on-beat (though equally, it’s in swing time, which changes the game somewhat.) But then the chorus melody is busier rhythmically, with more syncopation and pushed notes. This kind of “backwards” approach isn’t as uncommon as you might expect, especially in urban or dance-based music. “Moves Like Jagger” is another example of a verse with more open and “held notes” juxtaposed with a more driving, rhythmic chorus.

However it occurs, the point of Requirement 4 is that there has to be a change in the rhythm of the melody. This is one of the key requirements, there are very few successful tracks that keep the same melodic rhythm through the whole song, or between the verse and chorus. So … different rhythms once you hit the chorus.

Requirement Number 5.

Different rhythmic placement of the melody.

In reality, this is a kind of sub-set of Number 4. But it seems to me that it’s such an important part of what differentiates a chorus from a verse that I’ve set it apart.

The idea here is simple. If you start the melody on the downbeat in the verse, then don’t start it on the downbeat in the chorus. Or vice versa. And that goes for any beat.

In the majority of songs, the start of the melody moves forward once we get to the chorus, for the same reason that the chord pattern usually gets shorter. In bringing in the vocal earlier, we add excitement and drive, as well as really pulling focus onto the singing and the melody. A vocal that comes earlier will have the effect of leading the band or backing. As I talked about in my analysis of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”, there’s nothing to compare with what you get when he launches into “How Does It Feel?” in the chorus, a full half a bar earlier than where the melody started back in the verse, and a whole bar earlier to where the singing was starting in the bridge. We’ve referenced Highway to Hell throughout this blog, and once again we see a perfect example: the verse vocal starts behind the beat, on the 1-and, while in the chorus, it’s pushed all the way forward to the 3-and of the preceding bar. Just like Bob Dylan, when we get to the chorus, the vocals and the melody “lead” the rest of the band and the musicians, the chord changes always come AFTER the singing.

AC/DC aren’t the only ones to start the melody after the downbeat in the verse. It’s surprising (or not!) how many verse melodies start either on or around beat 2 (1-and, 2, or 2-and). They’re instantly off the beat, or across the beat, which gives you the syncopation and rhythmic play which is characteristic of the more rhythmic, more speech-like verse, and this then gives us the possibility of using the stronger downbeats and on beats in the chorus. Green Day’s “21 Guns” is a simple, but great example: the verse starts behind the downbeat on beat 2 (on “Do you know” …), then the chorus starts on the downbeat with “One …”. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pulls a similar trick: the verse starts once again (surprise surprise!) on beat 2, while the chorus moves the melody right forward, to start on beat 3-and of the preceding bar. It’s in the identical place in the bar to what we have in Highway to Hell. No, it’s not a coincidence.

Of course, what goes forward can also go back and still meet this Requirement: Snow Patrol’s “Run” again. Here, the verse pulls our AC/DC and Nirvana trick of starting on the 3-and before the bar … but this time, not in the chorus but in the verse. Then, when we get to the chorus, the melody moves later, going all the way back to beat 2 on “Light up”. This is almost identical to the examples I’ve given above, but in reverse. The consequence is also reversed, for instead of the melody leading, when we get to the chorus we feel that the singer is responding, commenting, reacting to what’s going on around. The band leads with those big chords, the singing follows, and it all ties in perfectly to the lyrics and the more reflective feeling that Snow Patrol are trying to get across.

These choices on placement of the melody are not simply musical ones – or rather, they are musical ones, but the way they feel to the listener, and how they impact on what is being communicated, shape how we perceive and read the song. So, if you’re trying to make Big, Powerful, foot-on-monitors Rock, you would probably not go pulling your melody back half a bar when you hit the chorus. On the other hand, if you’re a more introspective band, perhaps more ambient or “Englishy”, then sure, it could be something you consider. But whatever you do, it’s not something you can ignore.

So, Requirement 5: when you get to the chorus, shift the start of your melody. And not just by a little, it generally needs to move by a couple of beats or more.

Summary:

As I said in the intro, of the 5 Requirements above, you always need Requirement 1. Whatever happens, the chorus has to be in the home key. Or to look at it differently, the chorus IS the home key, it establishes the tonic for the song. If you have a “chorus” that modulates to the sub-dominant, or has a feeling of moving away to a key centre that is weaker than the verse, you don’t have a chorus, you have some kind of bridge or middle 8, and probably another kind of structure. You can still have a song that works of course, but AABA or 32 bar form uses different tricks to work than verse/chorus form does, and you need to be aware of that and take on board the consequences. I’ll (eventually!) put up a blog around 32-bar form at a later date.

So, that leaves 4 Requirements, and of these, you need at least 3. For example, you can get away with using the same chords between your verse and chorus, thus ignoring Requirement 2. But then you need to change the chordal rhythm, and make the two changes in the melody (rhythm and placement).  And not only make the changes, but make sure that the changes are good and obvious. A great example of this is Smells Like Teen Spirit, which we looked at re a couple of these Requirements above. Same chords, but all those other elements differ, and differ quite markedly.

However, you’ll find that most successful songs apply all 4 of these Requirements, as that will give you the greatest contrast and impact as you move into the chorus, and a stronger chorus that really anchors the song. It will also give you a wider range of raw material to build your song with, and because of that, a richer and more engaging experience for the listener, both musically and emotionally.

I give workshops around these ideas, and invariably I get asked “does this mean we can only write songs that work if we use this approach as a kind of formula?” Once again, I’ll write a blog on that, but the short answer is, of course not. I don’t even see this as a formula, as I said at the beginning, I see these more as analytic tools than a set of rules to be followed. They can be helpful if you have a verse and you’re looking for ideas for a chorus, or if you have a song that’s not quite working and you’re trying to work out why, or you’re looking for parts and arrangements.

But – and it’s a big but – most verse/chorus songs do what I’ve outlined above, certainly most successful songs in this form. There are of course successful songs that don’t, and even great songs that don’t, but for me it comes down to this: the further you get away from the approach I’ve outlined above, the more you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It means you’ll get less help from the structure and the mechanics of “how songs work”, and the more you’re going to have to do that work yourself. You’re going to need really strong ideas to get a song that hangs together. You’ll need great lyrics, great melodies, great arrangements and parts – usually topped off by a great performance.

Of course, it’s possible. REM’s “Losing My Religion” breaks about every rule going in terms of this, but it’s something of a masterpiece, one of those “this is why I write songs” songs. On the other hand, when REM came to do it, they had nearly 20 years behind them of working around techniques and structures that followed much of what I’ve outlined above. And from this same period, songs like “Imitations of Life” and “Everybody Hurts” show that they were neither afraid of, nor constrained by verse/chorus form.

Which is perhaps the main point for me in all this. It’s not the form that makes the song, it’s the content. There’s nothing in what I’ve outlined above that precludes challenging chord progressions, odd rhythms or off-the-wall melodies or arrangements. The structure is just a receptacle into which we poor our hearts and souls, it gives us a framework to hang our ideas on. And as always, it’s the ideas that count.

 

One caveat: Over the last 20+ years, we’ve seen the rise of new styles of music making, and with them, new approaches to existing forms, as well as the arrival of new forms. In particular, various kinds of electronic/dance music, R&B, Rap/Hip Hop etc. which use different devices to find solutions. In these cases, not all of the above applies, in particular in regards to harmony, chords and chord patterns. Many of these songs use the same chords throughout. These musics rely (much) more on rhythm and rhythmic construction as the glue and motor to the song, along with arrangement, sound and texture. If you’re making beats-and-production type music, you may well be looking elsewhere to get your verses and choruses to work – that’s if you have verses and choruses. This also applies to some extent to older styles that are based more on groove and feel, such as funk or (original) R&B. Along the same lines, some styles of music have genre-specific approaches to form and structure, even if they do have verses and choruses. In what I’ve outlined above, I’m mainly referring to more “traditional” songs and songwriting: rock, pop, singer-songwriter etc. It is interesting though how often you see the techniques I’ve outlined above used in non-standard forms to give the illusion of a chorus, to create a chorus-like section in songs that don’t use verse/chorus form.

 

There’s quite a lot in the above, perhaps consider downloading for later perusal. You’re free to share it, though sharing the link is probably easiest and preferable. I just ask that I’m always credited. If ever you wanted to use this, or any of it, for publication or for other commercial use, get in touch and we can work something out.

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

peterlcrosbie@gmail.com

Published by

Peter Crosbie

Musician, Producer, Mix and Recording Engineer

One thought on “Towards a Definition of a Chorus: How verse/chorus structure works.”

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