How to Create Contrast in Verse-Only Designs

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” E-book Bundle
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While verse-chorus-bridge designs are possibly the most commonly used plans in the pop song world, the verse-without-chorus is certainly up there in regard. The popularity of verse-chorus is that it has a built-in ability to create contrast because choruses often use different material from verses. So if your song consists of only a single melody, here are some thoughts to consider:

  1. Allow the melody to start lower, move higher, and end lower. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, written by American songwriting legend Jimmy Webb, is a perfect model for this type of song. Study the rise and fall of this melody, particularly as it marries beautifully with the lyric. Another great example is “The House of the Rising Sun.”
  2. Consider changing key between verses. “I Walk the Line” is a good model for this approach. The changing key allows for a sense of tonal variety. Though “I Walk the Line” doesn’t really make tonal choices based on the lyric, you can certainly use the intensity of your lyric to dictate whether you move to a higher or lower key.
  3. If you find your verse-only form to be lacking enough contrast, consider a middle “bridge” section to your verse, giving you an ABA form. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police is a great example because it uses a mini “bridge” at the words “Oh can’t you see you belong to me,” and then a proper bridge at “Since you’ve gone I’ve been lost without a trace.” It still follows the typical format of songs without choruses: a rising in the middle, with descending figures toward the end. What’s great about this song is that the A section itself is a rising-falling contour, and the ABA in its entirety also displays the same overall shape.

The lyric in songs without a chorus needs to do double-duty. As we know, verse lyrics tend to set up situations and describe story lines, while choruses usually offer the singers emotional reactions to those situations. Be sure that your lyric incorporates both qualities. In “Every Breath You Take,” it’s the bridge that allows the singer to emote all the more. But if a bridge is not in your design, think carefully about the lyrical journey you take your listeners on. A lyric in a song without a chorus needs to allow the singer to experience some sort of emotion at its conclusion.
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