How Note Length Affects a Lyric’s Emotional Punch

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"I need a doctor", (Dr. Dre Featuring Eminem & Skylar Grey)You’ve probably noticed that songs that stir up deep-set emotions commonly use slower tempos. A slower tempo means that note-lengths, in real time, will be longer. Generally speaking, longer notes have the potential to generate more emotion than shorter notes. That’s why ballads tend to be the songs we write if we want to get inside the heart of the listener and really speak to them on an emotional level. As a songwriter you’ll want to consider note-length, whether you’re writing a slow tempo ballad or uptempo dance number, as an important way of affecting the lyric’s emotional punch.

To state it simply, most songs should use shorter (i.e., faster) note values in the verse, switching to longer note values in the chorus. Songs that use rap extensively have been doing this for a long time, with the verse featuring quick rapid-fire lyric delivery, often switching to a sung chorus that uses longer note values. There are many good models for this, but “I need a doctor”, (Dr. Dre Featuring Eminem & Skylar Grey) is a great current example.

The concept of using longer notes to generate emotion occurs in songs of all genres regardless of song’s tempo. You notice it more in songs that try to “touch the heart of the listener. You notice it less in songs that are simply “feel good” songs, or songs with defiant lyrics.

It explains why Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” uses shorter note values (8ths and 16ths) in the verse, and switches to longer values (8ths, quarters and longer) in the chorus. But Avril Lavigne’s “What the Hell”, which makes no attempt to dig down into the listeners’ emotional soul, shows little difference in note length when comparing verse and chorus rhythms.

If you’re looking for ways to create a chorus that has more emotional punch, consider these suggestions:

  1. Use slightly longer note values in the chorus. The difference should be subtle, not dramatic. Making a huge change, with very quick, short notes in the verse, to long full-bar notes in the chorus, may just distract the listener with its difference.
  2. Find the words in your chorus that have the potential to make the strongest emotional impact, and lengthen them. Also remember that emotional words often benefit by putting them near the top of your song’s melodic range.
  3. Vocal harmonies can help intensify emotions, and it’s the reason backing harmonies work well in the chorus. If you feel that your chorus needs something more, use vocal harmonies, and don’t forget to apply the same longer-note technique.
  4. Song bridges (usually occurring after the second chorus) are usually a section that displays a “fragmenting” of musical ideas, and so this can be an interesting area to experiment with note length. Choppy delivery has its own way of generating energy, so you may want to mix shorter and longer note values here as  you try to generate energy.

Don’t think of these suggestions as rules, but merely as one more way you can build energy in your song’s chorus. Don’t forget the other ways at your disposal for building energy: increasing instrumentation, raising melodic range, creating a climactic high point, and increasing tempo, to name but a few.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Thoughts on actual chorus length?

    Are 4 bars adequate?

    Is it viable to have, say, 4 lines of Chorus lyrics and simply repeat them (if doing 8 bars)?

    • A four-bar chorus is quite short. Once it gets to be that short it starts to operate more as a refrain than a chorus. Regarding repeating a 4-bar chorus melody, The Beatles did that in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

      Generally, it’s fairly normal to have verse and chorus melodies of similar length. If they are going to differ, it’s usually the verse that’s longer. For example, some songs will have an 8-bar melody that’s then repeated for a double verse, before moving on to the chorus. Paul Simon’s “My Little Town” uses a verse melody that’s considerably longer than the chorus.


      • Great reply. I decided on 2 options. 1) repeat the current chorus twice, or 2) draw the vocal melody notes out to “slow” the chorus down/make the chorus last longer. I’ll compare the two approaches and see which works. Thanks.

  2. “Find the words in your chorus that have the potential to make the strongest emotional impact, and lengthen them.” This is a great nugget of wisdom. Not only does it allow the vocalist more room to add emotion to the performance, but the listener will feel the rhythmic impact as well. Thanks!

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