It might be over simplistic to say, but one of the main jobs of a song verse, particularly in the pop genres, is to get the listener to the chorus. That’s certainly not to say that a verse is unimportant. A good verse does several important things:
- Through the lyric, it sets the scene and describes people, situations, events and circumstances. In that sense, it pulls listeners in.
- Through the chords, it establishes a kind of “harmonic language” for the song.
- Through the rhythms, it establishes the song’s general feel.
- Through the melody, it creates a pleasant kind of tension — a kind of musical suspense — that makes audiences want to hear what happens in the chorus.
In short, a good verse will make listeners want to keep listening. But how do each of those song elements — lyrics, chords, rhythms and melody — create the kind of intrigue that makes people want to keep listening?
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” – Discover the secrets of how great songs pull listeners in and keep them listening. Then apply those secrets to your own songs.
Here are some ideas to think about as you write your next song’s verse:
Each verse will usually have different lyrics, and the job of each verse is to give a bit more of whatever story or situation is being described. In and of itself, a verse lyric doesn’t need to explain much with regard to why or how you feel; that’s the job of the chorus. But a good song lyric needs to present a situation that most people can identify with. It’s why love songs still work. SUGGESTIONS: Keep words simple and common, express yourself in plain, basic language. Make listeners think, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”
The chords for each verse will usually be the same, though it can be interesting to insert chord substitutions in later verses, just to keep a sense of variety. (Eagles do this in “Take It Easy”). Verse chords should entice listeners to keep listening – to want to get to the chorus. SUGGESTIONS: Allow your verse progressions to wander in and around your chosen key. As chords loosen their grip on the song’s key, listeners subconsciously want to know where it’s all going to wind up. So use the verse to create interesting progressions that use altered tones, non-diatonic chords, and non-tonic substitutions.. whatever keeps things interesting. Listeners will find verse chords to be interesting in hindsight if the chorus switches to chords that are strong, short and rhythmically predictable.
Songs typically right away establish a rhythmic pattern that’s attractive and memorable. So from the start, a good verse will settle into a riff or rhythmic pattern that gets listeners engaged and moving. SUGGESTIONS: Use syncopations and other rhythmic devices in a verse melody’s rhythm. This kind of rhythmic flexibility keeps listener interest up, and contributes to the song’s overall rhythmic energy.
A verse melody has a lot of the responsibility of keeping an audience locked in and wanting to hear more. Like verse chords, a verse melody can get away with a fair bit of wandering around, but there is also a strong responsibility to making the audience anticipate the chorus. SUGGESTIONS: Particularly in the second half of a verse melody, you’ll keep people listening if you gradually move your verse melody higher. Not every verse melody you write needs to do this, but it’s a great trick to apply if your song is lagging. A higher melody translates to more musical energy. Accompanying that verse melody with a gradually intensifying backing instrumentation and production can also help to build musical energy.
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A verse-chorus chord progression pair refers to two progressions that move seamlessly one to the other, where one has those characteristics of a good verse progression and the other acts as a good chorus one.
Before giving examples of these types of pairs, keep in mind that the easiest way is to create one progression that will work in both the verse and the chorus. In other words, one progression for both sections.
A chord progression formula is a powerful tool for instantaneously creating dozens of progressions, all of which you know will work! “Chord Progression Formulas” is part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
These kinds of progressions should be strong, which means the following:
- The key is clear. This means a progression that strongly indicates the key and doesn’t divert (at least not much) from that key. Example: C Dm F G, or C Bb F C.
- The progression is short. Don’t allow the progression to wander or become overly long and involved. Four or five chords should do it.
- The harmonic rhythm simple and predictable. Harmonic rhythm refers to how frequently the chords change. In strong progressions, you’ll want to do something predictable, like changing chords every 2, 4 or 8 beats.
But lets say you want to create a verse progression, and then switch to something entirely different for the chorus. (This is the case for the majority of songs.)
If that’s the case, you’ll want your chorus progression to exhibit the 3 characteristics I’ve listed above: a short progression with a clear indication of key, in which the chords change in a predictable pattern.
Verse progressions can be a little different. A verse progression may:
- ..be longer than a chorus progression.
- ..can subtly avoid the key of the chorus. For example, your chorus may clearly indicate C major (C Dm F G C). So it can be interesting if you verse focuses more on a minor chord from that key… A minor, for example: Am G Am Dm…
- ..use more inversions (slash chords) than a chorus might.
What To Look For In a Verse-Chorus Pairing
So what specifically makes a verse-chorus pair of chord progressions really work well? In practically every case, a verse-chorus pair works nicely when the listener senses the music moving from a “fragile” state to a “strong” state.
That might mean, for example, a chord progression that sounds wandering and hard to pin down regarding key, moving to a progression that’s shorter and much clearer with regard to key.
5 Verse-Chorus Progression Pair Examples
So here’s a short list of progressions you can try. They’ll work in any key, so feel free to transpose. They’ll also work for most genres, and (especially with regard to the verse examples) feel free to modify and otherwise experiment with them.
Verse: Am G Am Em F G Em (repeat as necessary)
Chorus: C F Am G C F Am G (repeat..)
Description: The verse focuses on minor chords from C major (particularly Am), and the chorus focuses on major (C).
Verse: C F D E7 Am Am/G F D/F# G Em F C Dm Em F G
Chorus: C F C F C F C/G G
Description: The verse is long, wandering through several key areas. The chorus is short, and unambiguously in C major.
Verse: Dm Em Dm Em F Bb F Em (repeat as necessary)
Chorus: C Dm C Dm Em F Gsus G
Description: It’s hard to nail down the key by ear for most listeners, but that’s OK since each chord sounds like a logical follower to the one that came before it. The chorus progression is typically shorter and stronger.
Verse: G G/F C/E Cm/Eb G/D D F G
Chorus: C C/Bb Am G
Description: The verse sounds like G major, and uses a mainly downward moving bass line. The switch to the chorus moves the progression clearly into C major, still using the descending bass line as a kind of musical motif.
Verse: C F Dm G Em Am F G
Chorus: C G Dm G
Description: The verse progression is quite strong and predictable, solidly in C major. The chorus progression is much shorter, so the only real difference between verse and chorus is the length of the progression. Both those progressions, by the way, would work well in a chorus.
Most of these verse-chorus pairs would work well with a pre-chorus progression inserted in between. A pre-chorus is a short section between the verse and the chorus, and usually serves to build up some musical energy and make the chorus “more welcome.” If you find that the chorus sounds as if it’s happened too soon, try inserting 4 bars or so, something that generates musical energy toward the first chord of the chorus.
In the first chord progression example above, for example, this might work as a good pre-chorus progression: Dm Em F Em |Dm Em F G.
“Essential Chord Progressions” give you hundreds of progressions you can use as is, or modify to suit the songs you’re working on. If all you need are some chords to get you going, check out this ebook collection. Read more..
We tend to think that the only people with any measure of musical ability are the ones that have a special gift for it. And while being a good musician requires a bit more than a passing understanding of how music works, musicianship is something that comes with being human. It’s in our DNA.
The kind of musicianship I’m talking about has more to do with processing music than writing it. Most people have the ability to hear and enjoy music, and that requires a brain that is able to take the notes and rhythms they’re hearing and make sense out of them.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs.
For some, however (and I assume you’re one of them), musicianship extends to being able to create music from the imagination. You are one of the ones who derives pleasure from pulling many different song elements together to create a unique musical journey — a new song.
But lately, perhaps, you’ve found that everything you try to write has a great start, and a nonexistent finish. You get a certain way into the writing of a new song, and then everything fizzles, and you have no ability to finish what you’ve started. So now you have many — maybe dozens — of attempts, with nothing completed to show for your efforts.
And that makes you wonder: am I really a songwriter? Maybe I’m just someone who gets excited by the thought of songwriting, but lacks the ability to actually see it through to completion.
The good news is that you probably are a songwriter. People who have little ability to write music probably wouldn’t get as excited as you do at the start of your songwriting process.
If you find it easy to start but hard to finish a song, here are 3 common causes, along with suggestions for overcoming those problems.
1. Not Fully Understanding Song Structure
If you find that you get 1 or 2 minutes into a song that’s going well, and then you get stumped because you don’t know what should happen next, that’s quite possibly the symptom of not really understanding how songs are designed.
Solution: Take some time to read good songwriting texts, and to do some online reading by other good songwriters who like to describe their process. A song is a musical journey that uses a kind of musical logic. And while every song is unique, it’s very possible to generalize in a meaningful way how songs should unfold. Knowing what should happen next means understanding song form and structure.
2. Feeling Uninspired to Write
Perhaps it’s not so much that you can’t think of what’s “supposed to happen next.” Maybe it’s more that you just don’t feel the same excitement for your song that you felt when you started it.
Solution: To keep your excitement levels up, listen to good music. Listening to a great song has a way of generating creative and artistic excitement, because you hear the possibilities! And don’t just listen… when you hear something that you really like, try to pinpoint exactly what it is that excites you. By identifying what you like, you’re more able to do something similar in your own music. So you not only inject a bit of excitement into your process, but you’re able to use it in a practical way.
3. Your Songs Have Too Many Ideas
It often surprises even good songwriters how much repetition goes on within a good song. Many verse and chorus melodies take a short 1- or 2-bar idea which gets repeated over a changing chord progression. So if you find that you get 2 bars into a verse melody and don’t know what to do next, your excitement for the song fizzles quickly.
Solution: Create a short, catchy idea, and then sing it over and over again with the chords changing underneath. You’ll find that you can quickly create an entire verse, or half a verse, with very little effort:
That’s an AAAB form (3 phrases the same, and the last one different), and you can modify that plan to many other possibilities: ABAB, AABA, and so on.
All I really want to convey is that song structure can simply be laden with too many ideas. Simple is often better than complex. So if you’re stuck for ideas, simply repeat the one you’ve already created.
So most cases of “unfinished song” syndrome can be solved by:
- more fully understanding how good songs are structured;
- replenishing your musical excitement by listening to good music; and/or
- simplifying your songs’ designs.
No matter what happens to your song, don’t throw it out. Because you’ll be surprised by how many ideas will come flooding back into your musical brain by simply putting the song away and bringing it out again another day.
Have patience, and don’t get discouraged!
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There are lots of tricks that composers have used over the centuries to create new melodies based on already-existing ones. Some ideas:
- Slowing a known melody down so much that it becomes unrecognizable as the original. Example: The first phrase of Mozart Piano No. 16 in C major served as the main melody for “Hey There“, from “The Pyjama Game” (Jerry Ross/Richard Adler)
- Borrowing a classical melody for the main themes of a pop tune. Example: Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” uses Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, 2nd movement as the theme for the verse and instrumental bridge.
- Using a public domain traditional folk song. If your arrangement is unique enough, no one will suspect that you’re simply using a tune that’s been around for decades, maybe even centuries. Example: House of the Rising Sun, recorded by The Animals, the tune for which has possible roots all the way back to the 16th century.
The best way to write consistently good song melodies is to understand how they support the lyrics. That partnership is a crucial part of songwriting success. Get the full story in Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting.” Get the 10-eBook Bundle today, and receive “Creative Chord Progressions” FREE.
If you’re looking for other ideas, let your imagination be your guide. Here are some other ways in which pre-existing songs can serve as the basis for a new song melody. Done well, no one will ever know you borrowed these ideas from songs already out there:
- Play an existing melody backwards. Take any song melody and play it backwards, note-for-note, with no rhythm. Get a sense of the melodic shape, and start to apply your own rhythms and lyrics. This technique can work well as a starting point for then adding your own original ideas.
- Invert an existing melody. Here’s how this works. Let’s say you’ve got a song melody in G major, one that starts on the note G, then moves up the scale until it hits D. To invert this melodic idea, you start on G, but you move down 5 notes until you hit C. Continue this way, and you’ve got an inverted melody. Again, it’ll work well as a starting point.
- Radically change the tempo of an existing melody. Caution: You don’t want to do this to a song protected by copyright, because simply changing the speed of a song still puts you in violation of that copyright. But it’s a great thing to do to a public domain folk song. If you decide that you’d like to try this with a copyright-protected song, you’ll need to contact the copyright holder(s) and get their permission.
- Combine a tempo change with a modal change. Let’s say you’re thinking of a song that’s got a quick tempo and uses the following chords: C F Dm G Dm G C. Try slowing the song down to a ballad tempo, and switch to a minor mode, giving you these chords: Cm Fm Ddim G Ddim/F G Cm. If it still sounds too much like the original for your liking, try some chord substitutions. For example, change the Ddim to Fm, and the G to Bb.
The first two ideas above will likely not have you in violation of copyright, because you’ll have come up with a completely new melody. Ideas #3 gives you the same melody, so just a reminder that you’ll want to try that one with a folk song or other public domain song, not a more newly composed song under copyright.
Idea #4 may still have you in violation of copyright if you use a copyright-protected song. It really depends on what you wind up doing to the original melody, so be careful with that one.
Looking through lists of public domain songs is going to give you a lot of ideas, so visit the PD Info (Public Domain Information) site. The site gives a comprehensive list of songs that have always been, or have now passed into, public domain.
When you use a song that you didn’t write, be sure to do your research. Don’t rely on word of mouth that a song is legal to use. The PD Info site should be a good guide for you, at least as a starting point.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, is available at “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Online Store. Get it separately, or as part of 10-eBook Bundle, along with a FREE chord progression eBook.
Improvisation is an important part artistic creation. Who knows where those very first ideas come from — the ones that pop into your mind as you’re walking down the street or sitting on a bus. But almost everything that follows, at least for most songwriters, happens through improvisation.
In that context, improvisation means using your musical imagination to come up with something that sounds like a good partner for what you’ve already created. That new bit might work, and if it does, you keep it. If it doesn’t, you throw it out and improvise a new idea.
If there’s a downside to this way of improvising to write songs, it’s the fact that it can take a long time to get the job done. A good analogy would be having a blue sock, and then blindly reaching into your sock drawer and pulling out socks until you find one that matches. The faster way to do it is to actually look for another blue sock, and the job is done in seconds.
So what you want to do with your songwriting is to improvise ideas that already have a good shot at being keepers. What that means specifically is hard to say, because every initial idea is different, and so determining what will work with it changes with each idea. That’s what makes songs unique.
There is a way, however, to make improvisation a smarter part of your songwriting process. Since the main bits of song creation are going to focus on either melodies or chords, here’s how you can make better use of improvisation as you write your songs:
- Improvising melodies. Let’s say you’ve got a good, hook-like melody that’s serving nicely as a chorus. How do you make better use of the time you spend improvising new melodies? The faster way: verse melodies will usually be lower than chorus melodies. So as you improvise your verse, keep below the general range of your chorus. If you’ve got a verse and chorus, and now want a bridge that pumps up the energy, improvise ideas that go higher than the chorus.
- Improvising new chords. Let’s say you’ve come up with a verse progression that uses something like this: C Dm Bb C. Extending that to something longer, or coming up with a progression that works well in the chorus, often involves a lot of random choosing of chords. The faster way: Identify the key of your progression. By doing that, you zoom in on the chords that are likely going to form your other progressions. If you’re not sure how to identify the key of the progression (the one above is from C major, with Bb as a non-diatonic chord), read this article.
The idea here is that you want to start the improvisation process by being “in the ballpark” to begin with. When it comes to the creation of new bits, there’s more to it than what I’ve described above. When trying to generate new melodic ideas, for example, it often helps to mimic ideas in one part of the song when you write melodies for the other parts.
A good example of this might be Bruce Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” (1987). Listen to the verse, and note how the melody is comprised of many short downward-moving shapes. Now listen to the bridge that follows, and you get similar sounds, some of which reverse direction and move upward, and some which continue downward. The fact that the verse and bridge share similar “motifs” in this way act as a kind of musical glue.
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Hi, I'm Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You'll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
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