AABA Form: What it is, how it works.

For much of the 20th century, the dominant form in popular music wasn’t verse/chorus form as it is now, but AABA or 32-bar form. It’s a form that started to come to the fore after the first world war and by the mid to late 20’s had become pretty much the form of choice for popular music. Which it remained until around the time that Jim Marshall developed his first amplifiers in the mid-sixties – which is not just a coincidence, but more on that later.

AABA is a form that’s both easily recognisable and familiar. It powered the music of your grandparents, and depending on your age, your parents as well. Most of the songs from the heyday of musicals and film soundtracks were AABA – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is but one of many – as were the majority of the early Beatles, though they used AABA throughout their career. Late songs such as “Something”, “The Long and Winding Road” and of course “Heh Jude” are all AABA.

But it’s not just a museum piece. In more recent times, bands from Green Day to Queens of the Stone Age to Coldplay, even to Metallica, have all used AABA. I’ll look at the reasons for that in Part 2, but first we need to understand what AABA is, and how it works.

To do that, we need go back, way back to the origins of popular, vernacular music. Back hundreds of years to ye olde minstrels and balladeers of yore and their form of choice, strophic form. A song like “Scarborough Fair” (e.g., the version by Simon and Garfunkel) is a good example of where strophic form came from, while a lot of (early) Dylan shows where it got to, e.g. “The Times They Are A-Changing”. It’s a form that is still very popular in traditional styles such as folk, bluegrass or (12-bar) blues.

 

 

The main characteristic of strophic form is that it has just one structural block which is then repeated for the duration of the song. While there’s no chorus, there’s usually the repetition of one or two lines of lyric as a refrain, which also becomes the title. This comes either at the beginning of the basic block, “Are you going to Scarborough fair”, or at the end, “Cause the times they are a-changing”. There are other possibilities, including variations in how this basic lyric is used, but these two are the most common.

Strophic form can work well, which is one of the reasons its been around for hundreds of years in the first place. But it has one major weakness: we repeat the same basic harmonic material throughout. If we were to write out the sections we get something like: AAAAAAAA, with perhaps the odd A’ thrown in for variation. It sounds like what it looks like, and all this repetition can easily become predictable and uninteresting.

There are various ways around this which I’ll go over in more depth in a Strophic Form entry here at a later date. One of the most common solutions is to use lyrics rather than music to give the song form and momentum: Dylan’s “Hurricane” is one of the best examples, all 11 verses and 8+ minutes of it. Strophic form is primarily a story form, where the lyric narrative, the “tell me what happened next”, provides impetus, carrying us through the song.

Another simple way of stretching things out is to use slower tempos or triplet time (which effectively adds 50% to the duration of the basic beats). No surprise that “Scarborough Fair” and “The Times They Are A-Changing” use both of these techniques: they’re slower songs in 3 4 time. Other techniques for sustaining interest include the use of melodic variations or instrumental interludes to add some variety.

But these approaches aren’t always enough, or aren’t always right for what you’re trying to achieve. In those cases, what can you do? In attempting to answer this, someone had a brilliant idea: rather than just repeating a single section, why not add a different section, a B relative to the A? But – and it’s a big but, which is one of the reasons it took a few hundred years – how can we make another section which by definition needs to move AWAY from where we are? As we’ve seen above, we’ve tried changes in tempo and melody, instrumental interludes, lots of lyrics … but none of those are enough to help us escape a single repeated block.

But there’s one change that you never see (or hear) in strophic form: change the underlying chord progression. But not just change the chords, shift the harmonic centre to a new key to create an audible difference.

And thus was born AABA form. It’s a kind of supercharged strophic form, strophic form with an additional contrasting section, a “B”.

 

 

A classic example is the Beatle’s “Oh Darling”. It harks back to the golden era of fifties doo-wop, much of which was AABA. Straight away, we see the strophic form heritage with the title and main lyric idea in the opening line, “Oh darling …”, even the slower tempo in triplet time. Also typical is that each of the A sections starts with the title lyric, “Oh darling”. In fact, until the end of these first two A’s, there’s nothing to differentiate the song from strophic form. But after two rounds in the home key of A major, there’s a harmonic shift, and up up up we go to the sub-dominant (D major) on “When you told me …”. This becomes the contrasting section, the “B”. That modulation to the subdominant through the 7th of the tonic (A7 in this case) is a classic, instantly recognisable transition.

Following this, the B section slowly but inexorably winds its way up to the dominant (E), from where we drop back to where we started for the final repeat of the A section. To recap: 2 sections (A), followed by a section in another key (B), followed by a return to the material of the first section (A). AABA.

If each of those sections is 8 bars, as is often the case, we get 8 x 4 = 32 bar form, which is another name that’s often used for AABA. I tend not to use it because AABA doesn’t have to be exactly 32 bars to be recognisably and audibly AABA. George Harrison’s “Something” has a 9-bar A section with an 8 bar B, giving us 37 bars for the basic block. 37-bar form? It’ll never catch on.

Continuing on through “Oh Darling”, after that first round of AABA, we repeat the B, then another A, and at this slower tempo, it’s all that’s needed to get us easily over 3 minutes. But it’s that first 32 bar AABA section that defines this song and the form in general.

As with all AABA songs, the B section here has a sense of “other”. When we hit it, we’re somewhere else, and the run-up to the key change only emphasises this sense of displacement. If you spend a few hours listening to nothing but songs in strophic form, e.g. early Dylan, old ballads, folk music etc., and then you put on a song like “Oh Darling”, the B section really jumps out. Which of course is the point.

The B section is very similar in feel and role to the Middle 8 in verse/chorus structure, and is sometimes referred to as such. You might also come across the B section being referred to as a Bridge, which I feel is confusing, for reasons I discuss in my Middle 8 entry elsewhere here. I’ve always just called it or known it as the B section, which for me helps tie it into its functional role and the form it appears in – there’s no “B” section in verse/chorus form.

Any harmonic shift is possible for the B section, but there are two common modulations. One of these is so common it almost defines the form: it’s what we just saw, modulation to the fourth, the sub-dominant. There are any number of examples in the Beatles repertoire, and not just early Beatles either: “Oh Darling”, “Back in the USSR”, “Heh Jude” … all run up to the fourth for the B section. Same story for Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, and even Coldplay’s “In My Place”. It’s so instantly recognisable that unless it’s handled with care, it becomes a cliché, and we’re back in the fifties with songs like “Great Balls of Fire”, or “All I Have To Do Is Dream”. It’s perhaps revealing that two of the Beatles songs I referred to above, “Oh Darling” and “Back in the USSR” are both to some extent parody or quotation songs. They reference earlier song styles (“Oh Darling”) or in the case of “Back in the USSR”, earlier song lyrics (The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” meets Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA”.)

The second most common modulation is just as equally recognisable, though is less associated with a particular period or style and for me, is less of a cliché. This time, instead of going up, we descend the 3 steps to the relative minor. So if you’re in D, you’d drop down to b minor, in F to d minor etc. Once again, just to take the Beatles, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” has the A section in G major, the B section in e minor. As an aside the B-sides of the single version were “I Saw Her Standing There” in the USA and “This Boy” in the UK. Both of these are also AABA, though they revert to the more common modulation to the sub-dominant (fourth). Yes, AABA was very, very common in this period.

A more recent AABA example which uses exactly the same modulation is Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (G down to e min on “Here comes the rain again”). Similarly, there’s a relative minor modulation for the B section in Coldplay’s “Yellow” (B maj to g# min on “Your skin”).

In contrast to the kind of clearly defined harmonic approaches that we see in verse/chorus form, AABA is a lot more “anything goes” when it gets to the B section. If the song starts with the main lyric, or uses the main lyric as a refrain somewhere else in the first 8 bar block, and we then get a modulation to a different key after two or so rounds of the A, that’s about all we need to give us AABA form. It doesn’t really matter what key the B is in. The object of the exercise is harmonic contrast and any tonal shift will give us that. Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” is AABA and simply drops down a tone on “Never cared for what they do” for the B. We see the same thing in another “softer” song by a more powerful band, Cream with “White Room” (amin down to G on “I’ll wait in this place”).

Even moving to distant or unrelated keys can work. In “Yesterday”, McCartney drops from F major to e min for the B section at “Why she had to go”. George Harrison drops from C major down to a somewhat unexpected A major (not minor) in “Something” on “You’re asking me will my love grow”, and he even gives us a straight modulation to the major from the minor in the B of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (a minor to A major on “I don’t know how”). Queens of the Stone Age sum it all up in some ways, by not really moving to anywhere particularly defined: the B section of “No-one Knows” (“I realise you’re mine”) is just a succession of ascending chords to the dominant (5th) before eventually crashing back down to the tonic with the riff-to-die-for when we return to the A. The object of the exercise is to get away from the tonal centre of the A section, and riffing up a series of different chords is as good a technique as any.

Before moving on, to recap the above, AABA is:

  • 2 blocks of material, +/- 8 bars each, in an AABA structure
  • the second block (B) in a different key and with a different chord progression
  • main lyric or title in the first A block, usually in the first or last line
  • slow to mid tempos

In the next entry, I’ll look at how we use these blocks to build whole songs, and then get onto The Big Question: where and how would you use AABA?

 

© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

Building songs with AABA: How and why.

In a previous entry, we saw where AABA came from and what it is. In this entry, I want to look at how we use these blocks to build whole songs and then move onto The Big Question: where and how would you use AABA?

So, song building with AABA: what happens after we’ve been around the first 32 bar AABA block?

Unlike verse/chorus form where song structures tend to stick closely to a handful of established patterns, AABA is a fairly free-flowing form, especially once you get past that first 32-bar AABA block. Still, there are certain approaches that are more common than others.

One of the most typical and straightforward is the structure we saw with “Oh Darling”: after the last A of the first block, we then get a second B, followed by 2 or more rounds of A to play out the song. So: AABA B AA.

Another fairly common approach is to take the final A of the first AABA block as an instrumental or solo, for example George Harrison’s “Something”. After this, there’s a reentry of the vocals either on  a repeat of the B or back to an A. We can see both these approaches used in different versions of “Something“.  For the original studio recording, the guitar solo leads into a final A, but in some of the live versions, Harrison comes back in after the solo with a second B before closing with that final A. Both are typical AABA structures. In the longer (live) version, the form looks identical to what we saw previously with “Oh Darling“, (AABA B A), even though the feel of it is quite different because of where and how the singing, instrumental break and lyrics work across those A’s and B’s.

Sometimes songs with these structures start to feel (almost!) like a kind of verse/chorus structure, where instead of verse-verse-chorus-instrumental, we get A A B instrumental. Of course, the big difference with a verse/chorus structure is that the B isn’t in the home key and as always, we find the main lyric (title) in the first A section, not in the B. In AABA there’s no chorus per se, and the B section functions a lot like what a Middle 8 does in verse/chorus form.

Another common approach is to complete the first 32 bar block and rather than use the last A as an instrumental, follow it with an instrumental/solo section on the A as a kind of interlude. The vocals then come back in again either on the B (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on “I don’t know how”), or with another full round of AABA (“When September Ends”).

(Eric Clapton showing that when you can play guitar like that, you can get away with a short-sleeved shirt on stage.)

As you can see, there are a range of approaches, though they’re not as dissimilar as they might seem when describing them on paper. Most of the time, AABA songs take the following form:

AABA … something …. AA.

where the “something” is made up of a combination of A’s and B’s, and may or not include an instrumental section.

To sum up, it’s a structure that’s generally fairly predictable for the first 24 – 32 bars, then goes for a bit of a wander around the material that’s already in place, then returns to something more regular after that, often finishing on one or two rounds of A. These final A’s can even be used as the launching pad for a playout at the end. Songs like “Nothing Else Matters”, “Every Breath You Take” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” all have extended, fairly freewheeling codas on repeated A’s, though there’s no new harmonic material.

(BTW, I’ve cited “Every Breath You Take” here already. It’s a song that starts as a really classic AABA, with the B on “Oh can’t you see”, but at the end of the first 32 bars, goes further in adding yet another modulation to another section, a “C” on “Since you’ve gone”. It’s kind of a second AABA within an AABA. But it’s rare to go that far, generally the harmonic material that we have in the A and B is enough for the whole song.)

 

(A 23 year old Paul McCartney and one of the most famous AABA songs, “Yesterday”. Sung live and without monitors.).

So what does all this mean? When or why would you use AABA?

For me, the main characteristic of AABA isn’t so much in the specifics of its underlying harmonic structure, though it’s a consequence of it. If we look at verse/chorus form, the song is harmonically anchored in the second section, the chorus. This is the point in the song that we move towards, it’s both the high point and the “coming home” moment. But AABA songs don’t do that, they do the reverse. They are harmonically anchored in the first section as that’s the section which is in the home key, and also the section with the main lyric and title. Thus, with AABA, as the song proceeds, we move away from the main material, not towards it. Without that constant moving towards a focal point, there’s less drive, less forward momentum. As a result, AABA is a less assertive or affirmative form, not so much “hands-in-the-air”, more “nodding the head in agreement”.

This has an impact on how the song reads, and in particular, the kinds of lyrics and subjects it best serves. This is especially obvious in the B section where harmonically we move away from the grounded, home-key A section. This is mirrored in the lyrics, and B-section texts are often less affirmed, less certain. Coldplay’s “How long must I wait for this?” is a great example of the questioning and reflection that characterises many B sections, as is Metallica’s cri-de-coeur “Never cared for what they do”. We see it in the self-questioning of George Harrison’s “I don’t know why” from the B section of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and in McCartney’s “Why she had to go, I don’t know” in the B of “Yesterday”.

Coldplay in particular are worth mentioning here, especially early Coldplay, because I often see them as the classic AABA band. It’s a form that’s perfect for them and what they’re about, the introversion of “bedroom rock”, where no matter how hard you drive the guitars, there’s always that sense of “what am I doing here?”. As often as not they don’t get the girl, but even when they do, we’re a long way from “You shook me all night long”. AABA isn’t particularly muscular or self-assured.

So this is a form that lends itself to reflection and ambiguity, songs that concern themselves with matters unresolved. With lyrics built around these subjects, verse/chorus structure can simply be too “Yes We Can”, and in particular, the chorus too concrete, too solid. AABA is perfect for slower songs when you don’t want to make A Big Ballad, a kind of Celine Dion or Adele.

So it’s no surprise to see even powerful bands like Green Day and Metallica use it for exactly that reason. In the cases of both “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and “Nothing Else Matters”, verse/chorus form would have felt too bombastic, even ponderous for the feelings of melancholy/reflection that they’re exploring. Not surprising either that another of Green Day’s most successful down-tempo songs, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is also in AABA, dropping down to a major on the 6th in the B section at “My shadow”. For me, wondering-out-loud lines like “Sometimes I wish that someone out there will find me, till then I walk alone” are classic AABA lyrics.

Historically, AABA is synonymous with the rise of popular music, in particular, the rise of music through mass media platforms such as film, radio, TV, and eventually the vinyl disk. For around 40 years, it was THE predominate popular music form. But when in the mid-sixties we started looking for forms that would support bigger, more assertive, more powerful musical and lyric ideas, when we started to see the emergence of rock, and when Jim Marshall starting building amps that went up to 11,  AABA eventually lost its place at the top of the tree.

That doesn’t mean it’s obsolete, far from it, as we’ve seen from the contemporary examples above. It’s another structural form, another approach, another tool in the songwriter’s box of tricks. But as always, the form has to match the content, and these days, AABA form is usually reserved for the specific kind of lyric or feel that I’ve outlined above. If you’re working with more reflective material, consider AABA, as for these kinds of songs, it’s often perfect.

 

© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.

Analysis: Snow Patrol’s “Run”

I’ve already looked here at a couple of classic songs from AC/DC and Bob Dylan. In their structure and form they do pretty much what you’d expect – and do it magnificently. But I also wanted to look at songs that do things a bit differently and to explore how the techniques I outlined in verse/chorus form can be used to help songs work even when doing so in unexpected ways.

Snow Patrol’s “Run” was the first single off their breakthrough third album released in early 2003. It follows to the letter the approaches we’ve already looked at, but it does so in ways that go against what you generally do to get verse/chorus songs to work. In fact, on the surface at least, you wonder why it doesn’t just fall into a hole.

There’s nothing particularly unexpected in the verse, which is built around a repeated 2-bar pattern with underlying chords: a minor, F major G major. But only the initial a minor is in root position and unmodified. The second chord, the F, is in a first inversion on the guitar (F/a) but with a C in the bass. But the vocal melody at this point is an e and d, giving us something that’s more Fmaj7 or Fmaj6. Additionally, just before we change to the following G chord, the f on the d-string is lifted off to give us a 3-note chord containing a, d, c which hints at both amin4 and dmin7. It’s ambiguous, and intentionally so.

Across all these chords there’s a hel high c note, so the G is a Gsus4 – though there’s more blurring going on here as well. Instead of playing the b on the a-string to give us a nice straightforward G major, we have a d up on the 5th fret which gives g d d c, an open-sounding Gmaj4 with no third.

(As an aside here, if you want to look at the main guitar part in more detail, the video below is as good a guide as any – though note that he says “Fsus4” when he actually means “Gsus4”. Most of the online chord or tab sites just give the verse as amin, F, G, which doesn’t do justice to what’s actually going on harmonically.)

Except for that last Gsus4 where we add in the bottom e-string, the other two chords only use 3 strings, so the harmonies are only barely sketched out. The other guitar plays an intermittent descending line that’s more e min7 than a minor, and in the repeat of the verse there’s a continuously oscillating a – b ostinato pattern on strings that smears things even more by putting a b note through everything.

What all this adds up to harmonically is typical verse: a not very defined, somewhat ambiguous tonality, in this case, a Debussyan 5-note cluster containing every white note from a to e, with added f’s and g’s at appropriate moments. You could just about put your forearm across the white notes of a piano, add the bass underneath, and you’d have the verse covered. There’s movement, but we’re not really going anywhere, change but no real development. This feeling of turning on the spot is reinforced by the absence of anything in the harmonic movement that would give real definition or drive, in particular, subdominant (d) or dominant (E) chords.

Across all this we get a vocal that’s as much spoken as sung, built around just a handful of notes that are mainly on the off-beat. So with the minimal chords blurred by suspensions and inversions and an absence of any strong rhythmic movement, it’s a floaty, atmospheric verse, an Alexander Calder mobile, rotating in the breeze.

This brings us to the chorus, or perhaps I should say The Chorus (1:06 in the full video above). It’s very different.

First up, we have a modulation to the relative major, C major. We also get the kind of harmonic simplification we often see when moving into a chorus. So while the verse is harmonically ambiguous, the chorus is the opposite, it’s solidly and unambiguously in C major in all its C majory, root position glory. The guitars are the main instrument for the whole song and here, in contrast to the minimally articulated chords in the verse, there’s a combination of full 6-string, downstroke, on-beat, chords in one guitar while the other plays simple but powerful arpeggios, most of them in first position. Gone are the verse’s meandering, intertwining lines, or any lines at all for that matter.

This sense of “home key” is further reinforced by taking 4 full bars for each chord, as opposed to the verse where we whip through a 3-chord pattern in that time. Just the first C major lasts as long as the entire verse chord progression, and at this slower tempo, holding one chord for 4 bars is a real statement of intent.

Outside of the harmonic rhythm, the choice of chords hammers home this feeling of “here we are”. In contrast to the absence of strong, leading chords in the verse, the chorus is built almost entirely around the tonic, dominant, and subdominant (C, G, F), with an a minor thrown in before the final F.  As we have 1 chord per 4 bars, the pattern is also loooonnnggg, 16 glorious bars, stretched out by a factor of 4 in comparison to the verse.

The singing? After rhythmically leading throughout the verse, the entry of the melody moves back behind the beat in the chorus. We also start to get longer notes e.g. “have … a choice” and “hear … my voice”, something which is totally absent from the verse. And while the verse is almost entirely on the off-beat, here it’s mainly on-beat, at least at key moments: the opening “light up, light up” lyrics are on downbeats 2 and 4, and the following phrases all start on beats and/or feature downbeats.

So when we hit the chorus we see the typical approaches: reinforcing the home key, changing both the harmonic and melodic rhythms, as well as changing the rhythmic placement of the vocals. But what’s quite unusual here is that some of these changes are back to front, they do the opposite of what you’d expect.

Firstly, most songs shorten the chord progression when you get to the chorus, i.e. you turn round the progression faster, usually double the speed. e.g., a 2 bar chorus pattern as opposed to a 4 or 8 bar one in the verse. this increases the energy and also usually helps reinforce the home key as it comes round more often.

Secondly, it’s a similar story with the rhythmic placement of the melody. Most songs move the singing forward when you get to the chorus … Bob Dylan’s “How does it feel?” is a great example, especially coming from a bridge where lines like “you used to feel” are way behind. Here, it’s the other way round, the “Light up, light up” comes after the start of the pattern, back on beat 2, while the verse lines are all ahead of the pattern start, they’re all upbeat phrases that lead us into the chord changes.

The risk in doing what Snow Patrol have done is that when you get to the chorus it’s as if you’ve hit the brakes. The harmonic rhythm slows right down, (in fact, in the first 4 bars of the chorus there IS no harmonic rhythm, we just sit on C major) and the melody moves back behind the beat. On the surface it’s a recipe for disaster. You’d expect all the energy to go out of the song at the exact moment where you need the reverse to happen.

But “Run” was a big hit – so what’s going on?

The first question to ask is do we even have a chorus at all. i.e., do we have chorus-like features that will enable the new section to function as a chorus and read as a chorus for the listener. Clearly, the answer is yes. If we look at what we need for a chorus, it’s all here: changes in the chord pattern? Tick. Changes to the harmonic rhythm? Tick. Changing both the melodic rhythm and rhythmic position? Tick. Finally, we modulate to the relative major, reinforcing the home key, so once again, Tick. Regardless of what else happens, there’s a solid base for a chorus and all of these features are enough to add interest and create forward momentum. The modulation to the major key alone is enough for a real lift in the song. If they’d stayed in a minor, I don’t know that we’d even be talking about any of this because without that modulation it’s hard to see what could have been done to give the same impact.

In digging a bit deeper, it’s worth looking at the rhythmic placement of the melody in the chorus. Yes it moves back initially, but then what happens is similar to what Dylan does in the bridge of “Like A Rolling Stone”, i.e. move the phrasing of the melody right back behind the beat but then in the following phrases gradually moves it forward, bringing real drive and momentum. The opening “Light up” is a lot later in the chord pattern than the opening verse melody. But the subsequent line follows almost immediately on “as if you have a choice”, jumping forward to start before the beat (2-and), while the third line enters even earlier still on the downbeat of the preceding bar for “even if you cannot hear my voice”.

This shifting forward is combined with something similar melodically. The top note of the opening “light up” is a C. This is followed on “have a choice” by a note one tone higher, a D, which is followed on the next phrase, “hear my voice”,  by a note a tone higher again, an E. So, across the 3 phrases, each peak is a tone higher than the precedent: C, D, then E where that E is the highest sung note of the entire song, the climax if you like. So we see successive phrases that both move forward rhythmically and rise in pitch. It’s like a series of waves breaking on the shore, each one higher and earlier than the precedent.

So while the singing does the unexpected and moves back on the rhythm when we reach the chorus, it’s only for the first bar. For the rest of the chorus it does what we’d usually do, and then some, especially with the rising melody. But that “hiccup” at the beginning of the chorus is also what sets the whole song up. It leaves a moment of emptiness, a kind of void, but one that comes just as we shift into a higher gear with the guitars and of course, the modulation to the major.The result isn’t a feeling of emptiness, but of space, of opening out, expansiveness. It’s as if we’ve turned a corner onto a long, open road after spending hours navigating inner-suburban streets, or suddenly emerge into a clearing after hacking our way through dense forest. At the chorus, the song doesn’t so much drive forward, it soars. This is a real standing on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched, video shot from a helicopter chorus. Not so much a punch-the-air chorus as a sing-along-with-the crowd, swaying-in-unison chorus. Which is why you get this happening:

The result isn’t a feeling of emptiness, but of space, of opening out, expansiveness. It’s as if we’ve turned a corner onto a long, open road after spending hours navigating inner-suburban streets, or suddenly emerge into a clearing after hacking our way through dense forest. At the chorus, the song doesn’t so much drive forward, it soars. This is a real standing on the edge of a cliff, arms outstretched, video shot from a helicopter chorus. Not so much a punch-the-air chorus as a sing-along-with-the crowd, swaying-in-unison chorus. Which is why you get this happening:

 

For me, this song reinforces a few key songwriting points.

Firstly, you don’t always have to do the expected to do what your listeners expect. There are different ways of skinning a cat. So, for example, while it’s true that most songs shift the melody forward on the chorus, you can still have great songs that do the opposite.

Secondly, the choices we make around our basic material have an impact on how a song reads for our listeners and what they understand in what we’re saying. Gary Lightbody wrote this song at a fairly low moment in his life. He said of the lyrics, especially the “Light up, light up” that he had the sense of a beacon in the distance, of no matter how difficult things were (the verse) there had to be light at the end of the tunnel (the major shift and the opening out in the chorus). The music does what the lyrics are saying. We feel the meaning as much as understand it lyrically and intellectually.

Thirdly, the song shows once again that while arrangements can really help make a song work, in most cases they aren’t the song. Even stripped down to just guitar and voice, this song still works, and just as importantly, works in the same way.

Finally, it shows how you can use the techniques I discussed in the verse/chorus entry to modulate the material. We’re often trying to push songs forward, but you can also use those approaches to ramp up or down the momentum, or to hold back, especially when transitioning to new sections.

 

© Peter Crosbie 2017. All rights reserved.

 

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

Analysis: AC/DC’s “Highway To Hell”

Back in the early 80’s, I was in a band that was signed to a record label run by Michael Browning, who had for many years been the manager of AC/DC. One night, we were on tour in Adelaide, and Michael turned up with two dishevelled-looking guys who he brought backstage afterwards. They turned out to be Malcolm and Angus Young. Even that long ago they were rock royalty and megastars, so it was a big deal to have them there, though thank god we didn’t know beforehand! What they actually made of us, a new wave pop band with a cute girl singer, I’ll never know, they were much too polite to say.

Original Clip:

 

Polite is not a word I’d use for them and their music, though they’re so well-known and have carved out such a distinctive place in the history of rock music, it’s hardly necessary to go looking for descriptions. They’re the definition of power rock, even hard rock (though perhaps not by today’s standards.) Their songs, their arrangements, their playing, even their recordings, are all about making and playing rock music as powerfully as possible. Anything extraneous or unnecessary is dispensed with, and everything is stripped to the bare bones, including the chords. They’re the 3-chord band by which all 3-chord bands are judged – and quite a few who use more than 3 chords as well.

But there’s a difference between keeping things simple, and being simplistic, and what makes these songs work so well is some very sophisticated work around content, form, and arrangement. It’s all very well stripping everything away, but then you have almost no room for any shortcomings in what’s left. Everything has to work.

Highway to Hell, released in 1979, is one of AC/DC’s biggest hits, though in reality, AC/DC never really had individual hits, they’ve just had huge tours and shipped full albums and CD’s by the bucketload. But while we’re not talking about an international number 1 here, we are talking about one of the most iconic and memorable songs in rock.

Quincy Jones, when he was producing Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, knew that he wanted 4 bars of solo drums at the beginning and that those bars had to be memorable and distinctive. I don’t know of many moments in music that are as distinctive and instantly recognisable as those first three chords of Highway to Hell. Three open position A chords played with successive downbeats by a guy wearing a school uniform.

Those three chords establish the rhythm for the verse, and the rhythm is repeated the same way throughout the 4 bar pattern, except for the last repeat of the cycle. Here, the second chord is omitted, but we have an extra chord added to finish. This extra chord, which then becomes the first chord of the following pattern, is the only chord in the verse which is on the beat, all other chords are pushed, coming before and across the beat.

Once we get through the first 4-bar cycle, this is just repeated, joined by first the drums, then on the following cycle, the vocals. The vocals are melodically simple, with only a handful of notes, but like the guitar, they’re all across the beat. All. The vocals don’t even use the downbeat which the guitar does to start each cycle. At that point in the cycle, (e.g. the word “ride” in the first cycle), the vocals are still ahead of the beat.

So, one guitar, drums, a single vocalist. And that’s it. It’s also it for the second verse. None of this “let’s add an extra guitar part in the second verse”. The minimalist Zen of rock, which both Malcolm Young and Cliff Williams get plenty of time to meditate upon because they don’t have anything else to do in the verses. Certainly not any playing.

Just before the chorus, all that comes to an end, and everyone joins in on an open E chord. This comes on the last bar of the 4 cycles, at bar 16, but this chord is then held an extra bar, to give us a 17 bar verse pattern. Sometimes people think about straight-ahead bands like AC/DC as using the simplest, even the most formulaic approach. In part that’s true. Angus once commented that Cliff Williams plays the same bass part in every song. But a 17 bar verse is not the kind of thing you’ll find in that many Radiohead (for example) songs. When the content gets pushed out into more complex areas, for example harmonically, then the structures that hold those kinds of songs together are often very simple as the songs need that solidity to support their flights of fancy. Here, it’s the reverse. The content, at least harmonically, is fairly straightforward, even basic. So because the harmonic movement is so readable and doesn’t need much formal underpinning, we have a lot more leeway with the structure, which means that we can mix things up to generate tension and interest.

Which is what’s happening here. This “hold and repeat the last chord for an extra bar” is a standard trick, and still works as well today as it did back in 1979. You usually find it in one of two places in a song. Here, just before the chorus, or in the last bar of the middle 8, which is also before a chorus, the last one. In both these usages, it builds tension, and heightens the impact of the chorus when it hits in. Dylan does something similar in Like A Rolling Stone which I looked at elsewhere here, but he builds his two bar held G into the structure, without adding any bars.

In both these cases, the chord is also the dominant. No chord has such a powerful leading effect going into the tonic of the chorus as the dominant, and it’s no accident that both Dylan and AC/DC do exactly the same thing at this point of the song.

So, everyone to the front of the stage, big E chord for a couple of bars, and then … the chorus. Or, THE chorus.

Here in comparison with what we saw in the verse, everything switches around. Remembering that this is a “less is more” approach to music-making, we’re never going to get any big key changes or radical shifts in direction, and the changes such as they are are minimal. But they’re also exactly what the song needs.

Firstly, the overall rhythm “squares off”. Gone is the across the beat rhythm that dominated both the singing and guitar in the verse. Here, almost all the material is not just squarely on the beat, but on the strong beats, 1 and 3. The High-Way of the singing is on beats 1 and 3, the chords don’t change for the whole of the first bar which is just the tonic, A, and we then get chords on the downbeat of the second bar, concluding with the IV-I cadence on beats 3 and 4. Yep, this is a two-bar cycle, as opposed to the longer 4-bar cycle in the verse, so straight away, everything comes round more often, so there’s more energy and overall, more movement and momentum. Going from a 4 bar cycle to a 2 bar cycle really drives a song forward.

The singing, as well as shifting to the on-beats, also changes from a more rhythmic, syncopated melody, to one where we have long held notes. Also there’s also a lot of jumping round between the notes in the verse, there’s hardly any repetition. In the chorus this is reversed, as except for a drop down on the word “to”, the melody is all repetition as there’s only one note. After the one-note samba, we get the one-note chorus.

The other big difference with the singing/melody is where it’s placed in the overall rhythmic scheme. I talk about this in my “Definition of a Chorus” blog, (as I do most of this) and at the risk of repeating myself, this is a great example of moving the melody forward when you get to the chorus. In the verse, the beginning of each line starts on the 1-and, so it comes after the downbeat at the beginning of the cycle. In the chorus, the “I’m on a …” starts way earlier, back on the 3-and of the preceding bar. It’s a shift in placement of a half a bar, two full beats, and gives us once again that “hands in the air” moment, where the vocal is leading the band, who are about to all come crashing in on the downbeat of bar 1 of the cycle, on the “high” of highway. I always see this kind of shift in the melody, of a shift in how we read the lyrics, from a more descriptive, reflective verse (after the beat), to a more assertive, declamatory chorus (before the beat). The content of the lyrics is reflected in their placement in the structure and rhythm.

The other feature of what happens here is that the one note of the chorus is the tonic, A But at its first entry, it’s coming across that held E at the end of the verse. So, we have a kind of dissonance, of a sung a across and E major chord, which is then resolved on the first downbeat proper of the chorus. Once more, everything they’re doing, every choice they’re making is helping to drive the song forward.

Of course, AC/DC are as much as anything about the guitars, and the guitars in the chorus – well, they just play open chords, A, G and D majors. The Highway to Hell album sold seven million copies in the U.S. on the back of this one song, and yet here we are in Lesson 1, Book 1 of “Teach Yourself Guitar”: the first 3 chords that every guitarist learns (… and a one-note melody to boot!). Nothing could be simpler. Or could it? Once again, there’s more going on here than what first meets the eye, or in this case, ear.

In the verse, we have these same 3 chords, though in a different order. In fact, apart from that E at the end of the verse, the song just goes round the same three chords for its entirety. Looking at differences between the verse and the chorus, the A is identical both times, as is the G. But in the verse, the D is over an f# – remembering that there’s no bass, so it’s just the second fret of the lowest guitar string, and Angus doesn’t sound the f# on the top e-string.

When we get to the chorus, Angus reverts to a standard Teach Yourself Guitar open D chord. But (with AC/DC, there’s often a but!), in the chorus we now have the bass as well, and when the chords change to a D, the bass continues to pedal the tonic underneath, the A. So nowhere do we get a “straight” D. It’s a first inversion D in the verse, then a second inversion D in the chorus. Additionally, in both the verse and chorus, for the G chord, the second string b note isn’t sounded, so we end up with open 5ths (g-d) as the lowest two strings, more like a piano player’s G than a guitarist’s. This voicing is less muddy, especially once you had some overdrive, and so more open and powerful.

(Here, I’m indebted to the very excellent tutorial by Justin Sanderco for clarifying the finer points of the guitar parts. Worth checking out. What’s going on here is a lot more worked than what you think, and Jonathan has done his homework in sorting it out.)

So, when we get to the chorus, the guitar rhythm shifts and becomes squarer, more on-beat, the singing does the same, and also switches from shorter notes to long held ones, and the melody moves forward by half a bar. We also have a chorus that’s much more focused around the tonic, the A.  In short, every single melodic, rhythmic and harmonic element changes once we move into the chorus, often doing the reverse of what we find in the verse.

There’s a tendency with this kind of music, more powerful rock or hard rock, to think of the chorus as being, well, loud. Just … loud. The loudest bit in the song. Whatever else is going on, it’s the place where the singer gives it all he/she has, the drummer hammers an open hihat, and the guitarists walk to the front of the stage and go “click”: distortion pedal. Or overdrive, saturation, compression, whatever …. More noise, louder. To some extent, we’re getting that here. The bass joins in, Bon Scott gives us a much more sung melody along with a rugby team of backing vocals, and of course Malcolm comes in as well, doubling up the guitar. So sure, everything is louder.

But, even on acoustic guitar, this chorus still sounds loud. It still crashes in, it still sounds big. It’s still powerful, and still makes everyone in the room want to jump to their feet and join in. And that’s not because it’s noisy, it’s because that bigness and power, that “loudness” is written into the song itself. All these changes as we move into the chorus, from moving the singing earlier to squaring off the rhythm to shifting the harmonic focus to the tonic etc. etc., they all contribute to this feeling of “yeah”, they all make the chorus more solid, bigger, and more powerful. Though the point here is not so much that the chorus is powerful in itself, but that it’s more powerful than the verse. Structure is about relationships, what happens as you go from one section to another as you move through the song, and if we want power, we need those relationships to be powerful. The kind of decisions that AC/DC make here in terms of the material and how it’s placed and treated, all give us that result.

As an aside, though still on the same theme, there’s a bit of misconception about AC/DC that that wall of sound in the chorus comes from massively cranked guitars. You only have to look at images of them on stage, with all those Marshalls to seemingly have that confirmed. But as Malcolm Young once said, “if I go above 3, that’s loud for me”. We’re a long way from amps that go to 11. It’s all in the song, the composition, and the arrangement.

The rest of Highway to Hell, well, as expected, there’s nothing much more that happens apart from what we have already. At the end of the second chorus, there’s a short interlude around the D and G from the chorus, a kind of breakdown section for 4 bars, before we launch into a guitar solo over the chorus chords, and then we’re into the last chorus and galloping towards the end.

Along my musical journey, I’ve mainly been interested in more, shall we say, “experimental” music. Music for the head, more than music for the body. Bands like The Beatles and Beach Boys, through XTC, Talking Heads, Bowie (of course) to more recent bands like Grandaddy and Radiohead. But as I’ve got older, I’ve gone back to listening to and enjoying more roots music, music like country, but also more straight-ahead rock and roll like this. And in doing so, I’ve come to appreciate that a great song is a great song. And I’ve especially come to appreciate and understand that there’s just as much work in a song like this, as there is in any of the more complex and non-standard songs that have been my staple fare. Highway to Hell only has 3 chords. But with what they do around those 3 chords, AC/DC approach perfection.

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

There are endless versions of this around the net (Youtube etc.), from more recent live performances with Axel Rose, back to very early live performances on TV etc. It always sounds pretty much exactly the same. And why not?

1979 live performance on German TV, not long after the song was first recorded. Interesting to see the very early use of wireless systems, which allowed Angus to wander around the audience:

 

From the Black Ice Tour (2009), the last tour that featured the 4 original musicians (2 x Young, Rudd, Williams). 30 years of playing the same song together sounds like this (with Brian Johnson instead of Bon Scott on vocals of course):

 

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.

Why a Middle 8 isn’t a Bridge.

I was working on a mix recently, and exchanging with the artist by email. All was going well, but we hit a bit of a snag when references to tracks that needed modification didn’t match what I what was seeing in the session. Eventually we sorted it out: what he meant by the Bridge wasn’t what I understood by the Bridge.

When it comes to talking about music, it’s important that we use the same terminology, and nowhere moreso than in regards to the sections of a song. And here, there’s one section that constantly causes confusion: the Middle 8.

The Middle 8 is the section which comes between the second Chorus and the third and final Chorus. There might be something else in there as well, perhaps a return to a part of a Verse before the last Chorus, or a repeat of the introduction. But basically, what we’re talking about is the part of the song around 2/3 of the way in that isn’t a solo, but where the song launches out into a new direction. An actual Middle 8 isn’t just an instrumental section over a Verse, it’s a separate section with different chords and arrangement, and can be either sung or instrumental. Often there’s a modulation, perhaps to the sub-dominant, plus other changes which I’ll be looking at elsewhere on these pages … eventually. But today, I just want to talk about names and nomenclature.

Before launching into this, we should acknowledge that there is of course a slight misnomer here, as a) the Middle 8 doesn’t quite come in the middle, it generally comes a little later and b) it’s not necessarily 8 bars long. But calling it the two-thirds 12 was never going to catch on!

There are plenty of examples of great Middle 8’s: Beatles, We Can Work it Out: “… life is very short …”. Beach Boys, Good Vibrations: “… gotta keep those love good, vibrations …”  Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run: “ …. beyond the palace, hemi-powered drones …”.

These and others are covered here as well as other places around the net, most notably this one, which has a great little introduction which sums up the confusion around Middle 8’s:

Anyway, we can probably all agree on what a Middle 8 sounds like, as it’s something we’ve grown up with as musicians and listeners. But I have a real problem with calling this section a Bridge. Not only is it confusing, it’s unhelpful to us as musicians.

In the non-musical world, a bridge is what we use to get over a river, or a road, or even in the case of those multi-way flyovers, another bridge. It can be high or low, long or short, built up or suspended down etc. We all know what a bridge is. It gets us from A to B, usually when there’s some kind of obstacle stopping us getting from A to B.

And this is my issue with using “Bridge” for the Middle 8. The Middle 8 invariably comes between two Choruses, so it doesn’t get us from A to B at all. It gets us from A back to A again. It’s the link between two identical sections, not between two different sections. (note here that these letters could be anything you choose. If you think of your Choruses as the B section, then a Middle 8 goes from B back to B.)

Starting from one point, going somewhere for a short while, then returning to the point of origin is NOT what a bridge does.

And that’s my problem with the nomenclature. The Middle 8 does not function like a (real) bridge as it’s not a transition, it’s an interlude, a “hang on a minute” moment. Why use the word “bridge” when the section we’re referring to is not functioning as a bridge?

This is not just nit-picking. If we agreed on the terminology, I wouldn’t have wasted an hour trying to make corrections to a Bridge when I needed to be looking elsewhere. But more importantly, it’s important that when we’re working on a song, whether it’s as composers, arrangers, or musicians, or even as recording or mix engineers, we have a sense of what each part of the song is doing and what role it plays. If you think of a Middle 8 as a kind of “going nowhere” section, you’re not going to be using guitar lines that drive the song forward, because that’s not what we need the Middle 8 to do. Same with the other elements. A Middle 8 is perfect for a moment of reflection or digression in the lyrics, and it’s the place in the song where the arrangement can be more atmospheric or textural. A Bridge does pretty much the opposite, it’s the moment to be looking for ideas that will move us forward. A to B as opposed to A to A.

Not all songs have or need an actual sung Middle 8, though historically it generally was. These days, it’s common to find a Middle 8 as a contrasting instrumental section such as a breakdown, perhaps with a few words of a vocal thrown in. This might be a slower or more open section, or it might recycle earlier material in a more stripped-down or even “spaced-out” variation: big reverbs and delays to the rescue!

A good example of this kind of approach is Korn’s “Never Never”. Their (mainly) instrumental Middle 8 starts at 2:11 with a short interlude, then hits the Middle section proper at 2:22. It’s actually 13 bars long in total, which might seem a bit odd, but it’s because it’s a very logical and readable, 4 + 12 bars, and they throw in a 1 bar suspension before hitting the last Chorus – a not uncommon device in a Middle 8, and a great trick to build tension and get more impact going into the final Chorus. (see my analysis of Highway to Hell to see how AC/DC use a similar trick.)

 

While we don’t always use Middle 8’s, many songs use Bridges, sections that function like real-life bridges in getting us from A to B. Where you most often find them is as a transition between the Verse (A) and the Chorus (B). If this is the case, it’s because going straight from a Verse to a Chorus doesn’t work. Usually that’s either because the two sections are too similar, especially harmonically, or because the material in the Verse won’t sustain for the 16+ bars we need between Choruses, so we introduce another section to give us the length we need. If you read through my “Definition of a Chorus” entry, you’ll see that generally we need a Bridge because our Verse isn’t “anti-chorus” enough, and we don’t fulfil enough of the difference criteria we need moving into a Chorus. A Bridge can solve a lot of these problems, especially as a Bridge usually shifts the tonal centre, so immediately we start to get the contrasting material we need.

An example of great use of a Bridge is Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, covered in another blog post on this site. Bob doesn’t use a Middle 8, or even a solo. But heh, with lyrics like his, who needs one! However, he does have a little instrumental passage after each Chorus to help break things up, but apart from that, the song just repeats the same structural sequence throughout.

In reality, about the only place you’ll find a Bridge is between the Verse and the Chorus. Any later and it’s more likely that what you needed was a Middle 8. The only other possible place for a bridge, between a Chorus and a Verse, risks becoming unnecessary padding – you generally need to return to the Verse as directly as possible after a Chorus.

Songs can also contain both Bridges and Middle 8’s. But they’re rare. That’s because by the time you get a Verse plus a Bridge plus a Chorus, adding a Middle 8 starts to make for a lot of different ideas, and the song can collapse under its own weight. Having so many different sections can also get complicated and confusing. One example that does work well is Lenny Kravitz’ “I’ll be Waiting”, where the Middle 8 comes in with the strings on “You are the only one”. He needs that fourth section, the Middle 8, because the other elements, are fairly simple, even minimal, which means that there’s not quite enough material to sustain the song with just Verse, Bridge, Chorus. He could have used a solo, but soloing over this kind of backing, at this tempo, isn’t really his bag. Also, as the song is fairly slow, it’s harder to get a contrasting breakdown section to work, as to some extent we’re already there: the whole song is open and textural, and you can’t really pull back from what’s already pulled back.

 

So, to conclude: The Middle 8 is the bit in the middle of the song, after the second Chorus. It’s not a bridge, and doesn’t work like a bridge, it’s a kind of interlude, often with a key change. A Bridge is the bit in the song that works like a real-life bridge, and drives the song forwards. It usually comes between the Verse and Chorus. Try thinking about these sections like that, and see what happens to your writing and arrangements. It all helps.

And, just a small postlude, and something to keep in mind: The middle 8 that we see in Verse/Chorus form functions almost identically to the B section of AABA form, and is sometimes even referred to as the Middle 8 in those songs. So if you’re looking for some more background on the what/why/how of Middle 8’s, check out my AABA entry.

© Peter Crosbie 2016. All rights reserved.