The conventional wisdom is that a song’s chorus should be happening by the time you get to the 1-minute mark, or even sooner. A chorus that happens after the 1-minute mark can work just fine, though, particularly if the song is in a slow ballad style.
Deciding when it feels right for the chorus to begin has everything to do with your song’s verse. If a verse goes on for too long, you risk boring the audience. That’s because the chorus is usually the hooky bit that everyone loves. It’s harder for a verse to have that same captivating quality. So when a verse is too long, the audience’s attention can wander.
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Let’s look, though, at a kind of opposite sort of problem: when the chorus happens too soon. Let’s say that you’ve written a nice verse that is 8 bars long, maybe two phrases of 4 bars each. So after two phrases, it’s pretty much done by the time you get to, say, the 30-second mark, meaning that you’ve got a chorus happening at 30 seconds instead of the more traditional 45-60 seconds.
If it feels like the chorus is happening too soon, your instincts will likely tell you to do something to lengthen your verse. So your first go-to might be to do a couple more run-throughs of that short 4-bar verse phrase. That gives you a chorus that starts at about the 60-second mark, and that might be a good solution.
But because you’ve repeated the same verse fragment four times, you run the risk of having an audience become bored with your verse. The better solution, instead of repeating your two verse phrases, might be to write a pre-chorus melody.
A pre-chorus is a short melody that serves to connect a verse to a chorus, and one of the main reasons you’d ever use a pre-chorus is specifically to elongate the time before you start a chorus.
There are no particular rules about what a pre-chorus should sound like, but keep these things in mind:
- It works well for a pre-chorus melody to start low and move higher. That helps musical energy to build.
- The chords accompanying a pre-chorus can be anything you’d like, but the last chord needs to connect well to the chorus.
- The pre-chorus shouldn’t go on for too long. Its main job is to provide a connection, not to be an independent section that goes on for too long.
The pre-chorus is optional, so not every song uses one. The pre-chorus of Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” solves a couple of problems: 1) a very repetitive verse, and 2) bringing the vocal range upward, since each iteration of the main verse phrase ends on a low note.
In “Rolling In the Deep”, the pre-chorus builds energy, not by moving constantly higher as so many pre-choruses do, but by repeating the same short fragment over and over. Generally, musical energy builds when the same fragment keeps happening over and over with a constantly changing progression underneath.
When the chorus finally happens, it’s almost as if you could feel it before it occurs, and the pre-chorus helps that explosion of chorus energy happen.
If you’ve written a pre-chorus, you’ll know that it works by doing this: try removing your pre-chorus and jump right from the verse to the chorus. If it sounds like the chorus is happening too soon, you know that your pre-chorus is working.
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Waiting for inspiration might be one of the biggest wastes of time in songwriting, and in other creative arts. It’s true that from time to time you’re just not feeling creative. And the solution always seems to be: just wait for it. But waiting is often not the best way forward.
It should be no surprise that our musical imagination has good days and bad days. Everything else we do in our lives usually happens in cycles: if you’re a runner, for example, you’ve got days when everything feels great, and days when you feel you can barely move.
When we don’t feel particularly creative, it feels most natural to simply stop and wait: wait for the musical imagination to return.
But here’s the problem with waiting: you don’t develop any techniques for helping yourself through your creative block. Because you step back, your not engaging your creative side, and so now you are waiting for some kind of externally-sourced inspiration to happen to you.
The best inspiration I know comes from your own music — your own creative process. You may not feel like writing, but working through a mild or moderate writer’s block is one of the best ways to rediscover the excitement of writing music.
If you’ve got a severe block, one that’s been on the go for months now, it’s true that stopping, at least temporarily, gives you an opportunity to reset, to come back fresh after a good long rest. In some cases where the block is debilitating, waiting might indeed be better than trying to move forward.
But if you’ve got a mild or moderate case of writer’s block, take a short break, and then pick up your pencil or your recording device, and force yourself forward. Waiting is simply wasting time.
It won’t always work, but more often than not, writing when you don’t feel like it has a positive effect on your musical imagination. Writing forces you to draw on your knowledge of how good music works. And new ideas, even if they’re created at times of feeling uninspired, will help create a new and powerful sense of inspiration that gets you moving forward again.
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If you’ve gotten partway through your next song, but you can’t seem to finish it, one of the best techniques for breaking the logjam is to take one aspect of your song and drastically change it.
It can sound ridiculous at the time, but it can work. For example, if you’ve been working on something in the metal genre, see what happens when you switch temporarily to making it sound like a country hit song.
The reason you’d do this is not to try in any deliberate way to switch genres on your fanbase. The reason you’d do this is because it can provide a positive “shock” to your creative mind, and get you out of the rut that has you stuck in your process.
More often than not, when you return to working on the song in a “serious” way, you find yourself feeling more creative, and coming up with more ideas.
Not everything you try will necessarily work. But here are some other things you can do to shock your creative mind and have some fun, and you can even try several ideas at the same time:
- Speed up a slow song, or slow down a fast song. Radically changing the tempo brings different moods to the forefront, and might actually change your mind about the direction your song should take.
- Raise the key until you’re singing at the highest part your vocal range. Experimenting with range is a really great tool, because every time you move a song up or down, it brings out different aspects of your vocal tone. For example, a ballad could be sung faster, in a higher range, which will completely change its character.
- Change the time signature. Almost all pop songs are in 4/4 time, so see what it sounds like to change to, let’s say, 3/4. In order to do this you’ll need to shorten up some of the rhythms at the start or the end of the 4/4 bar. You’ll find that this isn’t as complicated as you might think. Let your instincts guide you here.
- Change the performance style. If you’ve been strumming your way through your song, try finger picking. If you’re playing some other keyboard-based chording instrument, like piano, see what it sounds like to play arpeggios (broken chords).
- Change the instrumentation. It can be fun to take a song you’ve been working on with your guitar, and switch to ukulele, mandolin or banjo. When you’re trying to shock your creative mind, the weirder the better!
As I say, the purpose here isn’t necessarily to make these changes permanent. They’re meant more as a way of stimulating your creative mind, and free your thought processes up a bit.
Everyone gets stuck one in a while, and if you find that every time you return to a song you get that same “I’m stuck” feeling, it’s because the song is leading you down the same creative path.
The best way off of that creative path is to do something unexpected — something unique, even funny. You might be surprised that some ideas that were meant just as a fun way to free up your mind might be ideas that you end up keeping.
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I remember a while ago listening to someone’s song, trying to analyze what the problem with the chorus was. The songwriter had sent it to me, telling me that she felt the song started with great promise, but halfway through the chorus, everything sounded underwhelming.
In that particular song, we diagnosed the problem as being one of melodic range. Both the verse and chorus melodies sat in the same basic range, using the same notes, meaning the audience was hearing the same 6 or 7 notes throughout the entire song.
The solution was surprisingly simple: we found a spot near the start of the chorus where she moved one of the notes higher. With the inclusion of that one higher note, there was a noticeable bump-up in musical energy, and the chorus now sounded more exciting.
There’s another solution to consider as well: moving the key of the chorus upward. In other words, find a way to change the chord at the end of the verse so that it connects to a chorus that’s in a higher key. That puts all your melody notes higher, and may be what your song needs.
Here’s how you might do that:
Let’s say that your verse is in C major, and that this is the progression at the end of the verse:
Verse: Dm Am F G||
Chorus: C F Dm G…
You can change your chorus to be in any key that suits you, but let’s say that you want to change your chorus key to be one whole step higher: D major. So the first step is to re-do your chorus progression to be in D major, which means moving all your chorus chords up by 1 whole step:
Old progression: C F Dm G becomes:
New progression: D G Em A…
There are several ways to make this new key of D major sound like it’s coming out of C major in a satisfying way:
1. Change the final chord of the chorus.
You want to change it to something that a) connects well with the first chord of the chorus, and b) fits the last note of your verse melody.
Finding a chord that connects well to the D of your new chorus progression might mean changing the G chord — the last chord of the verse — to something like A7, Em, or perhaps even Gmaj7. Any of those chords will transition well to D.
2. Do an “abrupt” modulation.
This means not worrying at all about how easily the old key moves to the new one, but simply jumping to that new key. In this example, abrupt might work nicely because G moves well to D. That gives you this:
Verse: Dm Am F G ||Chorus: D G Em A…
Abrupt modulations are exciting, but you have to use your ears to determine for yourself if it really works for your song. Sometimes the change can be too jarring — too abrupt. As I say, in this case it works quite well.
Whether you choose to modulate smoothly or abruptly, the end result is a chorus that’s higher than the one you wrote originally, and that may be all you need to make that chorus sound more exciting.
Once you’ve finished the chorus, you’ve got to find a way back to the verse key, and so you’ll find that either the abrupt change will work, or else you’ll be looking for a good transition chord that gets you from the end of the chorus to the start of the verse.
If you’re looking for more information on changing key, try these older blog posts:
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If you always give the audience what they’re expecting, that’s a recipe for losing a fan base.
It’s true that your fans are going to expect a certain style of songwriting from you, but if you never venture outward — never explore the extremes — your fan base is going to get lulled into the unpleasant notion that not much is ever going to change.
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To figure out how to explore the outer reaches of your songwriting style, it’s important to be able to identify your comfort zone. What do you think makes a song distinctly yours?
To determine this, it’s best to look at each song component as a separate entity. This may take a little time, but here’s short list of how you might do this:
Read through lyric sheets of several of your most recent songs. Get an idea of the kind of thing you’re likely to write about. And probably more importantly: is there anything you don’t ever seem to write about?
Is it all love songs for you? If so, it’s time to branch out to write about other things that might connect to your audience. So how about social justice? Taxes that are too high? An ode to your guitar? Anything that gets you away from your normal go-to topics.
This can be an eye-opener, because for many songwriters, the way the melody works is a matter of subconscious design. When you put the magnifying glass on your melodies, you’ll want to make note of:
- Your songs’ basic ranges.
- Use of melodic leaps: do your melodies leap around a lot? And are they mostly upward leaps?
- Use of repetition of short melodic ideas: is repetition a common feature in your song melodies?
Now think about your last few songs, and are you seeing a lot of similarities? The answer is (as George Costanza would say) to do the opposite. Identify where your comfort zone has been, and purposely try to find ways to move in the opposite direction. It may be more comfortable (and more exciting) than you think.
Most of your songs will favour the same kinds of chords. It’s common for songwriters to make either mainly diatonic choices (i.e., choose chords that come naturally from your song’s key), or to make choices that stray a bit (flat-VI, flat VII, secondary dominants, or chords that use added tones).
If you’ve never ventured much from tame chord progressions, you’ll be pleased to know that it doesn’t take much to provide something innovative that will take your songs in a new direction. I’ve written an article about this before, and so if being adventurous with chords isn’t easy for you, this might serve as a good intro to the topic: How to Add a Bit of Complexity to Song Chord Choices
I think you get the idea. You need to take a close look at what you call your own personal songwriting style, and start moving into the extremes of what you’ve normally offered your listeners.
Any time you do this, you’ll run the risk of losing a listener or two, those who really aren’t much into being adventurous. But you will pick up others who will be impressed with your new direction. Almost always you’ll gain a larger fan base than you lose, and that’s a good thing!
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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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