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Ask someone to sing the theme to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and you’ll get that famous “da-da-da-DUM” theme. But Beethoven, Brahms, and all other composers realized that most compositions used at least two themes, the so-called “contrasting of ideas.” The first theme is usually the famous one, and the second one? Well, not as many people can hum the second theme from a symphony. Modern day songs have the same kind of idea going. It usually takes two themes, the verse and the chorus melody, to make a song. But in the case of songs, it’s usually the second theme – the chorus – that everyone should be able to hum.
While it’s quite interesting to note the similarities between Classical music and pop song, this is one aspect where we see a bit of a reverse technique in play. Composers of Classical and Romantic era symphonies tended to lead with the theme that they wanted to be most memorable.
Everybody knows the first 2 minutes of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, the famous tone poem by Richard Strauss, made famous as the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But the entire work is actually over a half-hour in length. And not many can hum any of the rest of it.
In songwriting, you actually don’t usually lead with the melody that you want people to hum. Even though you don’t want to take a long time to get to it, you want to build up to it.
So the first theme (your verse melody) has a particularly important role, which is to set up the chorus. Your verse needs to be written in such a way that it “begs for the chorus”. The easiest way to put it: Your chorus is what it’s all about, where everything is ultimately pointing.
Here are some tips to keep in mind that will help that happen.
- Start your song with an intro that gets people’s attention. If you can’t develop something that does that, try diving right into the verse. A song with no intro can actually be an exciting way to start.
- Get to the chorus before the 1-minute mark of your song, and preferably between 30 and 45 seconds.
- Let the opening line of your chorus be the song title, and use a memorable melodic shape and/or rhythmic figure to punctuate it.
- Unless your song is supposed to be a downer, let the song title be fun to sing! Keep changing the melody, the rhythm, the lyric, until it is.
- Keep the verse melody lower in basic pitch than the chorus. That allows the chorus to shine.
It’s OK for your verse melody to be a bit less flashy than your chorus. But while it won’t have the zing of your chorus, the verse still needs to be attractive. Certainly it needs to be catchy, and ultimately needs to feel fulfilled by a killer chorus.
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