Rock Concert

The Necessity of a Powerful Chorus Hook

I don’t at all want to give the impression that the chorus hook is so important that it makes whatever you do in a verse unimportant. It most certainly is important that everything you write is something people want to listen to.

But when it comes to standard pop song formats that use a series of verses with a repeating chorus, it’s vital that the chorus hook be something excellent.

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Another way of saying this is: a song with a less-than-captivating verse can be rescued by an excellent chorus hook. But it’s a lot harder for a song to succeed if the chorus hook is weak, no matter how great the verse is.

Where all this becomes important is in troubleshooting songs that don’t seem to be working. My advice to songwriters is to first and foremost put your attention on the chorus, and see if it’s working for you:

Troubleshooting the Chorus

  • Is the main part of the hook short and catchy?
  • Is it fun to sing and fun to listen to?
  • Does it sound great when repeated?
  • Does it have a message that connects with people?
  • Is the chord progression short and tonally strong?

If that’s all working, then perhaps it is the verse (and/or the pre-chorus) that needs help. In that regard, ask yourself the following:

Troubleshooting the Verse

  • Is there a sense of forward motion in your verse, where it sounds like it’s leading to something bigger?
  • Is the verse placed a bit lower in pitch than the chorus?
  • Is there a captivating sense of story, or some aspect of the verse lyric that needs to be answered in the chorus?

A well-written verse can make a chorus sound even better. A good verse builds musical energy that gets released in the chorus, and a good verse makes listeners believe that something even better is about to happen.

A bad verse doesn’t entice people to want to keep listening, so it’s tremendously important to write a verse that works. But when all is said and done, if you don’t follow it up with a great chorus, then everything you’ve done in the verse is wasted effort.

So the proper way to troubleshoot a song is to check your chorus first, then check your verse, and then examine how the verse moves into the chorus. Once all three elements are working properly, you’ve likely written a song that others will want to hear.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Bruce Springsteen

Simplicity Is Often the Main Ingredient in Songwriting Innovation

Back in 1982 Bruce Springsteen released “Nebraska,” his sixth studio album. It’s the perfect example of “barebones.” Springsteen played all the instruments himself: guitar, harmonica, mandolin, glockenspiel, tambourine, Hammond organ and synths. He even recorded the album himself at home on a small 4-track Teac cassette machine.

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His intention was to do as good a job as he could do using the equipment he had, teach the songs to his E-Street Band, then re-record them. But because of the deeply personal nature of the songs, Springsteen and manager Jon Landau felt that the demos, once cleaned up a bit, could and should serve as the final version of the album.

The album was successful, and rated high on most lists. It’s been ranked number 150 on the 2020 version of Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

I keep thinking about the fact that the album was released in 1982. It seems an unlikely year — the year of “Thriller” (Michael Jackson) and Prince’s “1999” — for this kind of quiet, introspective album.

But it should serve to remind us all that in the creative arts, simplicity is almost always a crucial ingredient.

It’s not just the recording process of “Nebraska” that’s scaled down. Even the songs themselves are seemingly unadventurous, mainly 3-chord tunes. But the subject matter seemed to demand that kind of simplicity of design. Songs about ordinary people, luckless folks, criminals, and others facing life-changing moments… it seemed that the personal touch of acoustic guitar and harmonica was all that was necessary.

Is there a lesson here for today’s songwriters? There are some great songs from every generation that get dressed up in the production values of the day, when perhaps the simplicity of a mainly one-instrument accompaniment is all that’s needed. (Genesis’ stripped-down version of “Follow You Follow Me” is one I particularly like.)

I’ve always believed that everything about a recording — instrumentation, production, and specific recording techniques — should serve the song. And that if a song doesn’t work in a bare-bones, stripped down sort of way, it’s probably not going to work no matter what other things you layer on top of it.

And sometimes, the best version of a song is the one that’s clean, clear and transparent. Whatever allows the song and words to shine forth, to communicate emotionally to the listener, is the one you should be offering to your fans.

In other words, get your song working in its simplest form, and then only add to it what makes it better.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Dua Lipa

Thinking of Songs as Musical Journeys

Every once in a while on social media you’ll see debates on the topic “What is music?” These are usually frustrating interactions, because no one is going to be fully satisfied with the answers they read, and maybe that’s the point of the question in the first place.

It’s a little like asking someone “What’s the best breakfast meal?” It mostly comes down to what you’ve always considered the best, based on what you ate growing up, and it’s almost never going to be the same as someone else’s experiences.

Defining Music

When you think about it, it is a little strange that we can’t easily define music. We can always rely on the standard “You know it when you hear it” kind of answer. But all we can say for certain is that it involves sound. But lots of things involve sound that aren’t music… or are they? (Ah, the debate continues!)

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For me, I like to draw a line between something we call music, versus something that has musical value. So birds twittering overhead might have musical value, but it isn’t music. By saying that, I suppose that I am saying that music requires intent. You must intend to make music, or else it simply sounds like music.

What Makes a Song a Song?

It does seem strange on the face of it that Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (1815) is a song, and so is Dua Lipa’s “Levitating (2021).” We call them both songs, though on first listen it sounds like no two songs could be so different as these two.

There are similarities, of course: they both use chord progressions, they both change moods and textures as they progress from beginning to end, and they both use lyrics as a way of pulling audiences in.

And there is one other similarity that often doesn’t get much of a mention when trying to compare two such different genres of music: they take time. There is a beginning, then something happens that takes place over a certain number of minutes, and then they end.

In that sense, both “Erlkönig” and “Levitating” represent what any and all songs represent: a musical journey.

The Song as a Complete Musical Journey

Whether Schubert is  your cup of tea, or whether you spend your time listening to the kind of songs that Dua Lipa is likely to record, you need to feel satisfied by the end of the song that you’ve heard a complete musical journey.

If there is any sense of “you’ll know it when you hear it” when it comes to songwriting, it is that journey-aspect of songs. We know that pop songs are likely to be done by somewhere between the 3- and 4-minute mark. By the end, it needs to sound like the end.

There are some songs that I’ve often felt needed more. It’s not just that Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” is short, coming in at 2 minutes. Short songs are fine. But I’ve just always thought that the song needed something else to make it a complete journey. My musical brain kept wanting some sort of bridge section that might introduce a new key at least for a short while.

But smarter people than me felt the journey was complete — complete enough, anyway. It was a hit, and so there you go: a complete musical journey.

As a songwriter, you can use this concept of the song as a complete musical journey to assess and troubleshoot your own songs. If you’ve written a song that seems somehow incomplete, regardless of its length, you’ve got two main options, and they depend on whether you feel that you got to the chorus too soon, or perhaps the entire verse-chorus format of the song just seems too short:

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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Genesis - Wind & Wuthering

How Genesis Succeeded In Their Transition from Prog to Pop

There is a necessary simplicity in good pop songwriting. And that simplicity might make you think that transitioning from progressive rock to pop is something you’d do if you’re just tired of creating more complex music.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Pop music can offer — should offer — every opportunity to songwriters and performers to be just as creative and imaginative as they experience with more complex subgenres like progressive rock.

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Most bands and songwriters transition from one compositional/performance style to another throughout their careers (the Beatles being a prime example), and in so doing, they gain followers and lose some. The successful ones usually gain more than they lose.

The Redefining of Genesis

Genesis was one of the world’s most popular progressive rock acts up to the late 70s. Most of their songs up to that time were longer than what you’d hear on Top-40 radio, and often consisted of multiple movements or sections, complex lyrics, imaginative chord changes, and ambitious instrumental techniques, and somewhat less-than-traditional subject matter.

All of these elements combined made them unlikely to get much comercial radio airplay, though their albums usually rode high in the charts, and everyone knew who they were. And, like other prog rock acts like Yes, King Crimson, and Jethro Tull, Genesis was highly respected.

You could hear elements of commercial pop music sneaking into their music by the mid-70s, first by the design of their melodies (“Your Own Special Way” – from “Wind & Wuthering” – 1976), and then by chords, beat, lyrics… the full package, with “Follow You Follow Me” (from “…And Then There Were Three” – 1978)

With their 1980 album “Duke”, while still incorporating some elements of prog rock, like long song multi-sectional forms, they had almost completely transitioned to pop music as their genre of choice, with hits like “Misunderstanding”, “Turn It On Again” and “Please Don’t Ask”

And the thing is… they were good at it. In an interview with keyboardist Tony Banks, he was asked about that transition, and he made a comment along the lines of “Well, back in our prog rock days we were always trying to write more accessible songs. We just weren’t very good at it.”

You might think of a switch to simpler pop music songwriting as a kind of last gasp: a prog rock group trying to squeeze a final few dollars out of the music world before bidding it adieu. But they were just beginning an entirely new phase, building an entirely new audience, and keeping many older listeners. They became one of the 80s most successful bands.

Why were they so successful at this switch? Chiefly, they retained many of the powerfully creative elements that made them successful as a progressive rock band and incorporated those elements into their pop music style:

  1. Imaginative chords. Even deep into their pop phase, you could still tell when you were hearing a Genesis tune: the chord choices were inventive and at times pleasantly unexpected. Mike Rutherford was still using lots of bass pedal point (holding the same note in the bass while the chords changed above it), and the upper structures of chords were still incorporating lots of altered and non-chord tones. (“Alone Tonight“)
  2. Instrumental skills. Rutherford reminds interviewers often that when they started out back in the 60s (pre-Phil Collins and pre-Steve Hackett), they really weren’t very good players, and in fact the original plan was for Genesis to be a songwriting collective, getting others to play their songs. But out of necessity (they couldn’t find others to sing their songs) they became better. By their pop phase, they were simply excellent at what they did, virtuosos in their own right.
  3. Lyrics as stories. In their prog phase, Genesis were storytellers. Every song related a tale, sometimes from mythology (“The Fountain of Salmacis“, from “Nursery Cryme (1971), sometimes from the news (“The Battle of Epping Forest“, from “Selling England By the Pound” (1973). Though many of their pop hits were typical love songs (“Follow You Follow Me“, 1978), they still very much relied on the story — even if simplified — as a way of pulling audience into the song (“Turn It On Again“, 1980)
  4. Diversity of musical styles & structures. Throughout any one Genesis album from the early 70s, you could encounter many different compositional styles that would lean toward different subgenres of popular music: rock, country, R&B, heavy rock, classical, folk, etc. Though their ventures into different styles became less adventurous, you could still hear it happening even in their later albums.
  5. Self-respect for their songs. Sometimes when a music group moves into the pop music world, the members of that group may not have a lot of respect for their new sound, and it really does sound as though they’re simply trying to cash in when they can. But Genesis were believers in what they were doing. They never put out a song they didn’t like. They tended to be very critical of how they performed and recorded their music, but they loved every song that made it to the recording (though Phil Collins’ song “Me and Virgil“, from their “3×3” EP from 1983 didn’t make it to their Genesis Archive 2 collection because he didn’t like it.)

Genesis was an excellent progressive rock act with a considerable following in the 70s. When they moved into the pop music world, they retained the respect and admiration of many of those old fans, and built an enormously large audience for their new approach.

Mainly they were able to do that by retaining the elements that made them successful in the first place, all headed by excellent songwriting.

What Songwriters Can Learn from Genesis’ Transition to Pop

No matter what your style of writing is, we can all learn from Genesis’ success. As you find your own writing style changing over time, you simply need to ask yourself three questions — probably questions similar to what the members of Genesis were asking themselves:

“Do I still care about what I’m doing?”

“Am I putting the same care into my musical choices?”

“Am I proud of what I’m now doing?”

If you can say yes to those questions, you’ve still got the capacity to be relevant and you’ll still build an appreciative audience. And you’ll continue to love what you do.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Peter Frampton

Switching From Major to Minor in a Song Isn’t Common, But Has a Powerful Effect

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If you’re planning to write a song that contrasts major and minor keys and you want to use songs from pop music history as your guide, it’s most likely that you’ll find songs that use a minor verse and then move to a major chorus.

Most common key switch in pop songwriting

As with “You’ve Got a Friend” (Carole King), “These Dreams” (Heart), and “Stronger Than Me” (Amy Winehouse), the moving back and forth between minor verse and major chorus is a common technique for most songwriters.

The minor-to-major process for so many songs comes about because we like the brightening effect that it has on the music. We don’t mind a song that starts a bit dark and brooding as long as we think there’s going to be a lifting of the mood by the time the chorus comes around.

Switching from Major to Minor

But what about the other way… writing a song that goes from a major verse to a minor chorus? There aren’t as many examples of that in pop music history, but they’ve got their own reason for working.

With The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy“, it probably helps the actual song title/first word of the chorus. That word “tragedy” is a great one for a sudden switch to minor, since minor (albeit stereotypically) makes us think that the mood has suddenly gotten darker.

But other songs use the major-to-minor key switch where it’s not so obvious why it works. A good example is Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way“, which goes from a bright major key of D major for the verse, switching to an edgier B minor key for the chorus.

To be a bit particular, you could debate that the chorus simply starts on the vi-chord of the same D major key, but the effect is the same: a chorus progression that starts on a minor chord.

The switch to minor doesn’t darken the mood as much as happens in “Tragedy”. More than darkening, the switch to minor in this case simply adds a bit of edge and power to what was, up to that point, a warm, happy sound.

As I say, the switch from minor to major — or vice versa — is all about controlling the mood of the music. It’s one of the problems I have with songs that use the same progression for verse and chorus, which seems to be quite prevalent these days in Top-40-style of pop songwriting: keeping the same progression means you’ve limited your opportunities for shifting the mood of the song.

So if your song uses a chorus lyric that sounds like it needs a bit of power behind it (“I want you to show me the way…”), opting for a sudden switch to minor is a good one to consider.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Gary Ewer

I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.

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