Composing from the Chorus Backwards

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Composing from the Chorus BackwardsIt’s not unusual for songwriters to get the chorus of their new song working before any other section. After all, it’s the hooky part that often coalesces before the other sections become apparent. But once you’ve got that great hook, how do you work backwards through a song, ensuring that it pulls the listener forward?

So the job is not just to compose something that relates to the chorus, but something that calls for the chorus. The verse needs forward momentum. Here are some ideas:

  • Melody
    Chorus melodies generally sit higher than verse melodies, so make note of the basic tonal framework of the chorus. Think of tonal framework as meaning the outer boundaries of your melody. Compare the most often occurring high note with the most often occurring low note, and you’ve got the framework. The verse’s outer boundaries should be lower than those of the chorus. So, for example, if your chorus resides mainly in the half-octave middle C to G above, consider a framework of the G below middle C to C or D for the verse.

     

    To enhance forward momentum, consider adding a pre-chorus that moves that melody upward, and you’ve now got a verse that calls for the chorus.

  • Harmony
    Chorus melodies often use stronger harmonies (i.e., harmonies that more obviously point to one key exclusively) than verse harmonies. So make sure your chorus harmonies sit solidly in one key, and feature at least some adjacent chords whose roots are a 4th or 5th away from each other; this strengthens most progressions.

     

    To create harmonic progressions for a verse that partner well, consider the basic tonality. If your chorus is solidly in A major, and use mainly major chords with just a few minor ones (A D A E Bm E A, for example), try creating progressions from A major that focus mainly on the minor side of the key (F#m Bm F#m Bm C#m D E F#m). All of those chords come from A major, but actually emphasize the natural minor (i.e., Aeolian) part of the key. Your pre-chorus could then concentrate on the move to the dominant chord (Bm E, or D E, or F#m E), setting up the chorus nicely.

  • Lyrics
    Chorus lyrics usually tell us how the singer is feeling about a certain situation, while verse lyrics explain what’s happening. So if you’ve got a nice lyrical hook in your chorus (“I need you back in my life..” type of lyric), you need to use your verse to explain how you got to that point. Your verse narrates, and your chorus emotes. So use verse 1 to set up a scenario that the typical listener will relate to, and that can relate to the chorus emotion: lover was unfaithful, lover has to leave for a while, you’ve met someone new, and so on. The pre-chorus phrases might need to be shorter and head higher, and start to mix in more of the emotions of the situation.

It may seem weird on paper to be writing a song backwards in this manner, but in fact it happens more often than you might think. What’s important is to remember that with a typical chorus, you’ve got to have the listener roped in to the emotion of your story. That emotional high can’t come out of thin air, so your task when working backwards is to ensure that energy builds as you go forward.
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