Writing a Compound Chorus: Beyoncé's "Single Ladies"

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

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Beyoncé "Single Ladies"A compound chorus is one which uses two or more distinct melodies and lyrics, each of which include the necessary characteristics of a chorus. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is an example. With such a chorus, each melody could exist on its own, though they are usually shorter than most chorus melodies. But be careful: thought needs to be given to how one progresses to the next.

First, let’s take a quick look at the formal design of “Single Ladies”:

0’00” Intro 0’13” Verse 1 0’32” Choruses 1’02” Verse 2
“All the single ladies…”; high energy level “Up in the club, we just broke up…” Lower energy level from lower vocal range; “If you like it… Oh, oh, oh… if you like it…” Higher energy level that resembles intro; “I got gloss on my lips…” Same energy as Verse 1;
1’22” Choruses 2’01” Bridge 2’30” Final Choruses
“If you like it… Oh, oh, oh… if you like it…” Repeat of first chorus “Don’t treat me to the things of the world…” Complete change of melodic material, change of lyrical message (“I’m not that kind of girl…”) Repeat of intro, then repeat of chorus material

The chorus in this song is actually comprised of three different melodies:

1) “All the single ladies” (B-B-B-B-B-E… G#-F#-E-F#-G#-E…)
2) “‘Cause if you like it then you should have put a ring on it” (B-B-B-B-A-A-A-A-G#-G#-G#-G#-F#-F#…)
3) “Oh oh oh…” (B-G#-E-E-F#-G#-F#-E-E-E-F#-G#…)

The intro of the song uses melody 1, essentially a call-and-response kind of melody which doesn’t recur again until the second set of choruses at 2’ 30″. For each incarnation of the chorus, we get a melody 2 -> melody 3 -> melody 2 sequence.

The first thing you notice about compound chorus melodies is that they each tend to be fairly static harmonically. In this song, melody 2, which starts the first set of choruses at 0′ 32″, seems to contain a bit more song energy than melody 3, which is, compositionally, a good reason to end the choruses with melody 2.

Another feature of note: Each time melody 2 repeats within the same chorus, the harmonic treatment changes. For example, at 0′ 32″, the very minimal harmony implied is a pedal bass on E. When this melody returns at 0’52, the implied harmonies change, with the bass oscillating between B, C and A. This more complex harmonic treatment offers a modification from the first presentation of that melody, and also increases the basic energy of the line.

And that’s probably the most important lesson to absorb concerning using a compound chorus melody. If you want to create a chorus out of rapidly repeating, separate melodies, you may need to find ways to build energy through the chorus by altering some aspect of one or each melody when it returns. Think about what you might do with alternate notes, adding vocal background harmonies, and/or making subtle changes to the backing instruments.

It’s important to remember that a compound chorus is different from pre-chorus moving to a chorus. Pre-chorus melodies move forward by creating harmonies and melodic shapes that beg for the kind of resolution a chorus gives. In “Single Ladies”, each of the three chorus melodies could exist as choruses on their own without the explicit need of the others.


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