When Verse and Chorus Use the Same Chords

Songs that use one progression throughout can work, but there are things to keep in mind.

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Ellie Goulding - LightsMost of the time, a verse will use a different chord progression from the one used in a chorus. And while verse progressions can be a little ambiguous — what I call “fragile” — a chorus progression will be much clearer and tonally stronger. The one circumstance where that’s not the case is when a verse and chorus use the same chord progression. Ellie Goulding’s current hit, “Lights,” is a good example of this. If you’re writing a song where the chords for the verse and chorus are identical, there’s a danger of too much sameness. So how do we handle that situation?

Let’s look for a second at songs that use different chords for the verse and chorus. In those songs, the verse is a place where things, people and situations are described, and there is a limited attempt at emotional expression; the emotional outpouring is usually saved for the chorus. A verse is normally “fragile” with regard to most of its elements. The chorus strengthens, using memorable hooks, catchy rhythms and a good dose of emotion.

So there’s a natural evolution from fragile to strong as a song moves from verse to chorus. That in itself generates momentum, and it’s why verse-chorus songs are so popular. An important part of the verse-chorus relationship is the strengthening chord progression, so how is it that some songs can be successful while using the same progression in both the verse and the chorus?

If you’re using the same chords in the verse and chorus, here’s a list of tips to keep in mind as you compose your song:

  1. Make sure that the progression you use is strong. In other words, be sure that it clearly sits in a key. “Lights” is in G# minor: G#m  F#  E  C#m
  2. Use instrumentation as a way of building strength and energy into your music. You’ll notice with “Lights” that instrumentation changes frequently, sometimes as often as every 4 bars. You’ll hear instruments being added, taken away, and otherwise manipulated. It helps contour energy.
  3. Think of vocal harmonies as an instrumental technique. You can build momentum by adding harmonies to your vocals. Use them sparingly if at all in verse 1, a little more in verse 2, and the most in the chorus. In “Lights”, vocal harmonies in the chorus are mainly octaves, which creates a richness in the vocal texture.
  4. Move melodies upward as a song progresses. This becomes crucial in songs with the same verse and chorus progressions. In “Lights”, the verse resides mostly in the lower G#3-G#4 octave, with the pre-chorus moving upward, and the chorus sitting mainly in the G#4-D#5 range.
  5. Move dynamics (volume) from softer to louder. Generally speaking, make your chorus louder than your verse. This will happen naturally if you’re observing point #2 above anyway, but it bears repeating. There should be a noticeable dynamic difference between the beginning and ending of your song.

The good thing about a song that uses the same chord progression throughout is that it tends to be memorable and hooky, two qualities that are going to be essential for hits. “Lights” also uses other elements that make it successful, including a great mix of syncopated rhythms that drive the song forward.

If developing a single progression that gets used throughout a song is your current songwriting project, “Lights” can serve as a good model.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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