Tips & Tricks: Writing a Song that Doesn't Use a Chorus

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Two SingersIt may be your normal way of writing to automatically go for a verse-chorus design, possibly  because the chorus (particularly the title) offers great potential for a hook. For many songs, the hook is a crucial aspect of what makes songs memorable. But it’s quite possible to write a successful song that doesn’t use a chorus at all. In such songs, the sense of “hook” is often more subtle. And because you don’t have a verse aiming for a chorus, you’ve got to think a lot about momentum and song energy in chorus-less songs.

There are lots of songs that don’t use a chorus, but will use a refrain instead. (A refrain is usually a 1-line verse-ender, usually comprising the song title). But I want to consider songs that don’t use that kind repeating element at all.

The old church tune “Amazing Grace” is a good example of a chorus-less song, as are “Embraceable You” (George & Ira Gershwin), “Norwegian Wood” (Lennon & McCartney), “The Rose” (Amanda McBroom, made famous by Bette Midler), and “For Once in My Life” (Stevie Wonder).

The only issue with “Amazing Grace” is that it’s quite short, and probably not a good model for designing a song for today.

Examining most of those tunes will give you a list of dos and don’ts regarding how to write a song without a chorus. Needless to say, such a song needs to feel complete in and of itself; by the time you’ve reached the end of the “verse”, it needs to feel melodically and harmonically complete.

Here are some tips and tricks for writing a successful song that doesn’t use a chorus:

  1. Most songs that are verse-no-chorus designs use a verse that is structured to be two or three large musical phrases (AB or ABA). “The Rose” is a good example. So writing a song without a chorus means your verse will often be a bit longer, and will go on more of a musical journey, than a verse from a verse-chorus design.
  2. You have two choices for harmonies at the end of the first phrase of your verse: 1) allow the harmonies at the end of your first phrase to require something to continue. Consider having your chord at the end of the first phrase be something other than a I-chord; or 2) use a tonic chord, but avoid the tonic note at the end of the first phrase. All of the songs listed above do this.
  3. Start the second phrase on something other than the I-chord. A vi-chord is a great replacement for a I, but the IV-chord is also a good choice. Then starting on that chord, bring the harmonies eventually back to I.
  4. While most first phrases of chorus-less songs have the melody move upward, using the second phrase to resolve it downward again, you might want to consider a more creative approach. “Norwegian Wood”, for example, has a first phrase that moves mostly downward.
  5. In any case, you’ll want to have the first half of your lyric present thoughts and ideas that need to be resolved in the second half.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Tips & Tricks: Writing a Song that Doesn’t Use a Chorus « The Essential Secrets of Songwriting Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Funny timing on this post, I just wrote my first chorus-less song! All your suggestions are great, and next time, I will have them at my disposal. In the meantime, here’s a link to the video my new tune (it’s a song welcoming my new baby girls — twins! — to the world).

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