Using a Pre-chorus to Build Anticipation

Pre-chorusA verse needs to progress in such a way as to make the chorus feel like the next logical step. By this I mean that verse lyrics, melody and chords should be constructed to build certain tensions that are then resolved in the chorus. But sometimes, moving from the verse to the chorus can seem too abrupt. It can sometimes feel that the verse is done, but the song’s not ready for the chorus yet. In such cases, the pre-chorus is a great way to build a bit more energy and allow the listener to anticipate that chorus all the more.

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The kind of verse that usually isn’t long enough to go right to a chorus will tend to be constructed of four short, repetitious phrases. Think of Sugarland’s hit song “Stuck Like Glue,” and you’ve got a great example.

Each phrase of the verse is short, and the lyrics and harmonies simple. After those opening four phrases, I think you’ll notice that it’s just not time yet for a chorus. The chord progression (C#-G#-F#, or I-V-IV) dwells strongly around the tonic chord, and so the music hasn’t, in a sense, had opportunity to start much of a journey.

That’s where the pre-chorus can come in handy. The pre-chorus is actually part of the verse structure, operating as a “tag” that allows the music to travel a little further afield. But unless you structure it properly, you’ll find that the pre-chorus can have the negative effect of making your song sound a bit cluttered.

So you certainly don’t want to interrupt the flow of your song. Pre-choruses will work well if you keep the following in mind:

  1. If your verse hasn’t gotten further than simply making a few “opening statements.” In other words, a pre-chorus will be good if you need to build a bit more interest into the lyric. In “Stuck Like Glue”, the verse lyric starts by making simple “Absolutely no one who knows me better…” statements. Nice, but no tension. The pre-chorus allows for the tension to build: “Just when I / Start to think they’re right / The love has died…”
  2. If your chord progression either ends on a tonic chord, or ends on a non-dominant chord (i.e., not the V-chord), a pre-chorus can allow you to circle around and build some harmonic tension by approaching the dominant chord, and then allowing the chorus to start on the tonic chord. In “Stuck Like Glue”, the I-V-IV progression is great, but more is needed to anticipate the chorus I-chord. So the pre-chorus gives us: ii-V, a standard pre-dominant to dominant progression that increases momentum and makes us need the chorus I-chord.
  3. If your verse melody moves in a downward direction, you can use the pre-chorus to either move the melody upward, or at least allow for the melody to hit a higher plateau, so that the chorus can start even higher. In “Stuck Like Glue”, the verse melody figures start on the 3rd, the pre-chorus moves it up to the 4th, and the chorus begins on the 6th note of the key (C#+).

So while a pre-chorus is certainly not a crucial part of your song structure, it can be tremendously useful for building energy, and creating a stronger sense of anticipation as you try to figure out how to make the chorus feel like a natural and necessary answer to a verse.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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4 Comments

  1. Gary,
    Thanks for your helpful post. I have a question about the example song by Sugarland. Which section is considered the chorus? From your description, it seems that the pre chorus is 2 lines long. And the chorus starts at “There you go making my heart beat again,” and ends at the second repetition of “You and me baby were stuck like glue”. If so, this is an EXTREMELY long chorus. In fact, the chorus has two distinct parts. Where I come from, the first half of this section would be called the “pre-chorus”. And the second half of the chorus that contains the title of the song would be called the “chorus”.

    If I am wrong about this structure, can you please clarify what that “two part” chorus is? I’ve noticed that structure in many modern songs and find myself desperately trying to find a term for it if it’s not pre-chorus/chorus.

    Thank you very much for your time.

    • Hi, and thanks for writing. I’ve described the chorus as starting at “There you go”, with the repetition of the “stuck like glue” line being a final part that gets repeated. It’s not all that unusual to have choruses like this, where it gets delivered in two distinct parts. I don’t describe the first part of what I call the chorus as a pre-chorus mainly because it doesn’t really do what pre-choruses typically do, which is to build song energy. Pre-choruses usually build energy by working the melody upward and moving the harmonies toward the tonic chord, neither of which happens in this case.

      So that’s the main difference between a 2-part chorus and a pre-chorus/chorus. A 2-part chorus will give us a first part that could exist just fine on its own, and could move directly back to a verse, without moving on to the 2nd part of the chorus. But a pre-chorus won’t work well on its own, because it has the characteristic of seeking out the chorus. It needs the chorus to complete itself. I’ve written before about America’s “Ventura Highway” as being an example of a 2-part chorus, and Katy Perry’s “Firework” as being a good example of a pre-chorus/chorus.

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

  2. I’ve heard and read a lot about how a pre-chorus can enhance a song but this is the first article that provides specific instructions on how to go about it. Thanks for this.

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