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If you were going to take a trip somewhere, it would be a bit strange to set out without having any idea of where you’re going. In fact, that kind of trip usually gets called a mid-life crisis. So why do so many up-and-coming songwriters try creating songs from the front end, without even considering where the song is going, or how they’re going to get there? A better way is to establish goals for your song, and then work backwards.
The benefits that come from working backwards from a goal are several, but the main one is that you are more easily able to control the song’s pacing and energy.
For example, by working on a song’s middle sections first, you can establish the song’s climactic high point, which often happens in the second half of a chorus. And once you know your song’s pinnacle, your verse melody becomes easier to work out.
But there are other song elements that are easier to control once you know what your chorus will sound like:
- Chord Choices. Chorus progressions tend to be stronger and more predictable (with lots of I, IV and V), with verse progressions more “fragile” (i.e., tonally ambiguous). Once you’ve decided on your chorus harmonic choices, you can go back to your verse, and try chords that focus more on the less-used chords: ii, iii and vi, for example.
- Lyrical Choices. We know that chorus lyrics need to focus on some clearly-stated emotions, and it’s hard to do that without some idea of what the verse lyric will be. So you’ll find yourself working in both directions for a while. But once you’ve got the general idea of what your verse will be, get thinking about your chorus lyric. This makes sure that the things you’re singing about in the verse actually have relevance in the chorus.
- Hook and Rhythmic Ideas. It’s important to have something in the chorus that is catchy and attractive, and if it involves the song title, so much the better. Once you’ve created a strong hook, go back to the verse, and look for ways to fashion a smaller version of that hook, something you can use as a backing instrumental idea. This is easy to do in dance-based tunes (“Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”, by Michael Jackson, demonstrates this principle very well), but should also be possible with other styles and genres.
So good songwriting is often a matter of working forwards and backwards. And every time you establish an idea for your chorus, look back toward the verse, and see if there’s a way of setting that idea up, of making it sound like it came from something.
That won’t be the case for everything you do in a chorus, however. Keep in mind that occasionally, it’s nice to have things appear in the chorus that just sound like a natural result of the verse, without necessarily having a mention there.
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