A pre-chorus is not a mandatory section of a song. In fact, most songs don’t use them. But in some circumstances, a pre-chorus can be a vital addition to the structure of a song.
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It sits between the verse and chorus, and it’s main purpose is to better prepare the listener for the arrival of the chorus, particularly when:
- The verse seems very short; and/or…
- The verse uses a repetitive melodic cell, or is otherwise somewhat unadventurous; and/or…
- The verse and chorus melodies are the same or similar; and/or…
- The verse chord progression is very simple, and/or is the same as the chorus chords.
In other words, your verse may sound great, but if it sounds like the chorus is arriving too soon, you’ll want something to make the listener wait a bit for that chorus. That’s where a pre-chorus fits the bill nicely.
So what should a chord progression in a pre-chorus do? It needs to serve as a good transition, of course, but it works best if it builds musical energy while making that connection.
With chords, musical energy is built when tension builds. Since most chord progressions (particularly in pop songs) are all about the journey away from and back to the tonic chord, a pre-chorus progression is usually constructed in such a way that its final chords want to seek out the tonic chord.
In “Stuck Like Glue”, which gives us a rather short pre-chorus of 2 bars, only two chords are necessary:
- Verse: Db Ab Gb (4 times)
- Pre-chorus: Ebm Ab
- Chorus: Db Ab Gb…
In other songs, the pre-chorus can be longer, perhaps 4 bars or more. In those cases, the number of chords will be greater, of course, but the job is the same: to build musical energy by seeking out the tonic chord.
However many chords you use will depend on how long your pre-chorus section is. But just to give you an idea of some of the possibilities, here’s a list of chord progressions you can experiment with.
Feel free to change them up, and to use them as a basis for improvising something else. They should work in practically any genre or time signature. I’ve written them in C major, and have made the assumption that your verse is going to end on a V-chord (G in the key of C major) and that your chorus is going to start on the tonic (I) chord.
But you may find that they’ll still work even if your verse ends on something different, like a IV-chord or even the tonic chord.
- Dm C/E F G
- F Am G___ F Am Gsus4 G
- Bb F Dm G Bb F Dm G
- F/C C G___ F/C C G G7
- Em Am F Dm Em Am F G
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Putting a label on something is usually meant to be a help. You might put an address label on a package you intend to mail, for example. That’s obviously helpful.
You might, after years of aches and pains, discover that you have arthritis. Labelling your aches and pains gives doctors a clearer path to treatment, and so those kinds of labels are necessary and good.
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There are those very few times, however, when a label might create more problems than solutions, and I think this happens in the arts a lot.
For example, your band might gain the label of being a pop music act, when you really want people (and industry execs) to know that you can dig deeper and do music that offers much more than a typical pop song. The Beach Boys might be a good example of this.
You might get labelled as a singer of fluffy ballads, as Phil Collins was during the 80s and beyond. With that label, his career as a drummer of astonishing quality, particularly regarding his work with Genesis and Brand X, seemed to fade (or not appear in the first place) in many people’s minds.
There’s hardly anyone in the music business who likes labels. Labels are almost universally seen as limiting, boxing artists into a predictable package. They’re only really helpful at all to audiences because they give them an initial sense of what they’re probably going to hear, and to producers who have the responsibility of targeting that audience.
Writer’s Block as a Label
There’s another label in the world of songwriting that can also be unhelpful: that label we call writer’s block.
When you’re going through a tough patch, and it seems that much of what you try to write leads nowhere, we call it writer’s block. The problem is that there are times when you might feel a bit stifled creatively, but the label of writer’s block makes it worse by creating a self-fulfilling prophesy: you’re stuck!
For any time in music when a label isn’t particularly helpful, I encourage you to reject the label! And particularly when it comes to writer’s block, you can turn frustration into something more effective by doing any of the following:
- Avoid frustration by refocusing on something else. If writing is causing you irritation, refocus on playing your instrument. Or purposely writing small snippets of music and lyrics. Or producing someone’s album. Just change your focus!
- Compile bits of unfinished tunes. You’ve likely got a virtual shoebox full of ideas that went nowhere. Once in a while, it can be well worth the time to play through incomplete bits of songs you’ve written over the months and years, and see what partners up. You might be surprised that your next few songs have already been written.
- Write about songwriting. It’s amazing what writing about something does to help you refocus on what it is you’re actually doing as a writer. Write about your influences, your experiences, your successes. You can do this in the form of a blog, or even as a short essay or book. It’s a powerful and useful exercise.
- Work with other songwriters. Even if it’s just a temporary arrangement, you can get a jolt of creative excitement by partnering with other songwriters to get past a creative block.
- Take a break, and label it as such. Here’s one label that’s a good one. Take a break from writing, but plan it and stick to it. Assign a week as your time away, call it a break, and don’t write, even if you feel that you want to. You’ll return to writing a week later feeling refreshed and ready!
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When you’ve written a song, it might seem like a logical next-step to ask someone, “What do you think of it?”
You might post it online, and hope that others weigh in on what the song sounds like to them. The hope is that the feedback will allow you to dig back into the song and make some changes.
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Once you’ve edited and modified it, you hope that you’ve written something that pleases the greatest number of people.
There’s nothing wrong with getting feedback, of course, but it needs to be meaningful feedback, based on knowledge and an understanding of the genre. Hopefully that much is clear. If you put out a general call for opinions, you need to be able to decide which ideas are good ones and which ideas aren’t.
But here’s the problem: if you’re a songwriter asking for opinions and an evaluation of you latest song, you might be missing the opportunity — and I would actually call it ignoring the responsibility — to evaluate it yourself.
To put that another way: If you don’t know if you’ve written something “good,” you’re not ready to ask someone else. That’s because evaluating your own song is part of the songwriting process.
The Many Levels of Assessing Your Song
Evaluating a song happens on many levels:
- As you compose the tiny bits and pieces. Each time you come up with an idea, you evaluate it to determine if it’s “good” — if it belongs in this song.
- As you assemble those bits. You create bits of music that you believe are good bits, and then you put them together with other ones. Again, you evaluate that new segment to determine if it’s “good.”
- As you finish a song section. Once you’ve got a chorus, or a verse, or a bridge section, or any other part of your song, you need to assess what you’ve done. You need to look at the many parts of the song and determine if all the bits you’ve written are properly communicating with each other.
- As you finish a song. And now you get to the stage where you play the song for yourself. Record a rough demo and listen. Now you get a fuller view of the entirety of the project. Do you like what you hear?
If you confidently and patiently go through those steps of evaluating your songs, an interesting thing happens: you feel less compelled to post your song online and ask for opinions. You feel confident that you’ve written something you’re proud of.
And you start to feel less needy when it comes to gaining the approval of others. That’s a nice feeling.
Confidently and patiently assessing your own songs means that you’re able to accept the fact that some people will love a song you’ve written while others dislike it. You’re OK with not appealing to everyone’s taste.
Confidence of that kind only comes by learning how to evaluate your own music. Always remember: evaluating your own songs needs to be part of your songwriting process.
What are the main differences between a verse and chorus that you should be concerned about as a songwriter? You’re likely aware of all the commonly-known ones:
- Keep the verse melodic range a bit below the chorus.
- Allow melody notes of the chorus to elongate, especially on title words.
- Prevent your verse lyric from getting overly emotional. Use the verse to describe or explain situations, and use the chorus to emote.
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One of the most important duties of a good verse melody is to properly set up and prepare the chorus. In other words, once the chorus happens, you get the strong feeling that the verse has done its job in making that chorus feel like the focal point of the song.
But other than the things already mentioned, how do you get a verse to do that? How do you make sure that the verse isn’t just sounding like an aimlessly wandering tune that finally ends when the chorus starts?
Here are some tips to help:
- Be certain there’s actually a story in the verse. Even in lyrics that describe a state of mind, there should be an implied story. If you’re singing about that you’re not getting along with someone, let’s say, you need to be dropping bits of that story through the verse. If not, you’ve got nothing for the chorus to create an emotion about.
- Allow the end of your verse melody to connect smoothly to the chorus. That might mean that you need to allow the verse melody to rise as it approaches the chorus (“She Loves You” – Lennon & McCartney). If the end of the verse is far from the start of the chorus in vocal range, consider a pre-chorus.
- Use the lyric to pose questions (either literally or figuratively) that get dealt with in the chorus. This sets up an important sense of tension and release that is the hallmark of many great hit songs.
- Build musical energy as a verse proceeds. Musical energy can come from many things: instruments that get louder/higher, vocal range that rises, words that become a bit more emotional… that sort of thing. The building energy sets up the chorus perfectly.
- Be sure that the verse deals with topics and situations that typical audiences can relate to. It doesn’t do much for a chorus’s potential if the verse sets up a story that’s just not making any kind of emotional connection.
When all is said and done, a verse has done its job if it sounds like it needs an emotional release — one that happens in the chorus. A verse works when it sounds like the chorus is the next logical thing to happen.
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Choosing a minor key for your verse has at least two nice benefits:
- It allows for the potential of switching to a major key for the chorus, and that sense of musical brightening that comes from the minor-to-major transition has a long tradition in pop music.
- Minor key progressions can briefly switch into major within the same verse, with little effort. That increases your ability to manipulate the mood of the music. (Example: Am F C F Em G Am).
It’s easy enough to come up with minor progressions, but let’s take a look at some that might be a little less than common. First, I’ll list them. Feel free to change them, experiment with them, change the playing style, the time signatures, etc. They’ll work in practically any genre.
- Am Fmaj7 |Dm9 |Am Fmaj7 |Dm9 | G Gmaj7/F# |Em7 |G Gmaj7/F# |Em7 |
- Am Bb F E7sus4 E7
- Am Bm7 Am Bm7 |Cm G/D C/E D
- Am Am-maj7/G# C/G Bm7/F# Esus4 E Esus4 E
- Am Gb/Bb Bm Cmaj7 A/D D F/G G
By the way, I call these “verse progressions” because the wandering nature of the tonality makes them excellent choices for verses. Chorus progressions often work best if they’re short and tonally strong, not wandering away from the tonic too much.
vi IV7 |ii9 | vi IV7 ii9 | (in G): I I7/4-2 | vi7 |I I7/4-2 | vi7 |
In this progression, all that’s really happening for the first part is that the bass note is changing; the structure of the chords above the bass stays the same, since Am, Fmaj7 and Dm9 all use the same treble pitches: A-C-E.
Then we get 3 chords that point to G major as a new tonic: G, Gmaj7/F#, and Em7. (Gmaj7/F# simply means a Gmaj7 chord with an F# note in the bass.) The Em7 at the end makes it easy to move back to Am for another run through the progression if you like.
The Em7 also makes it easy to create a pre-chorus, perhaps following the progression with this: Dm C/E F G.
vi bVII IV V7sus4/vi V7/vi
The Am chord gives way immediately to what feels like a couple of chords in F major: Bb-F. The move to F makes it easy to slide down a semitone to E, and so the transition back to A minor is easy.
ii iii7 ii iii7 |iv V/6-4 IV6 V
This one starts on the Am chord like the others, but it’s actually better thought of as being in G major. The Cm chord (iv) would normally be a major chord, so Cm is a modal mixture, which adds nice colour to this progression.
If you want to learn more about modal mixtures, read this: “Replacing Major Chords With Minor: Modal Mixtures”
vi vi4-2 III6-4 ii/6-4 V4 – 3 – 4 – 3
A bass line that descends by semitones adds considerable strength to the progression. A progression like this one, which uses a lot of inversions, may typically lack the kind of strength that comes from root position chords, so that descending bass line becomes an important kind of musical glue that pulls everything together.
Am Gb/Bb Bm Cmaj7 A/D D F/G G
vi V6/ii ii IIImaj7 IVmaj9 IV VII11 VII
Like the previous progression, musical sense happens through the constantly rising bass line.
If you like these progressions and you’d like to have a go at creating some that are just as imaginative, I recommend starting with something simple, something you know works, and then add chords (especially in the middle) that challenge the ears of your listener.
By doing it that way, you’ve got something that sounds tonally strong at the beginning and strong at the end. That means no matter how much you’ve wandered away from your starting key, you get pulled back to it, and the audience has a better chance of understanding what you’re doing.
“Chord Progression Formulas” helps you create dozens of progressions within moments, using some standard formulas. For major and minor keys. Get it as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle,” or purchase it separately.
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.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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