Making a Verse “Sound Like” a Verse

Adele - Rolling in the DeepThere are many reasons why a verse sounds like a verse and not a chorus. Decades (centuries, actually) of musical tradition shows us that verse melodies tend to be a bit lower in pitch than choruses. We also know that the tonic note and chord show up more often in a chorus than they do in a verse, and that song energy is higher in the chorus than in the verse. Interestingly, though, even before we get a chance to compare a verse with a chorus, we already know we’re listening to a verse. Knowing what makes a verse sound like a verse will help pull in listeners and build your audience base.


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In songwriting terms, energy is produced when you create moments of tension that need some sort of resolution. For a simple example, a long, slow crescendo will produce energy because listeners want to wait around to hear the end of the crescendo.

Energy is produced as a melody moves gradually upward, because listeners instinctively want wait around to experience the high point.

The best way songwriters have for controlling energy, however, is to consider the way melody and chord choices work together. We know that the tonic note coinciding with the tonic chord in root position produces a moment of energy, and is usually the resolution point of whatever came immediately before it. After that, the writer needs to back away, and energy dissipates.

Because the tonic note and tonic chord represent a musical goal, you’ll likely want to avoid those two coming together in a verse. So as you compose your verse, consider one of the other possible options:

  1. Tonic note together with a non-tonic chord.
  2. Non-tonic note with a tonic chord.
  3. Non-tonic note with a non-tonic chord.

I’m a real fan of Adele’s album, 21, and in particular her current #1 hit, “Rolling in the Deep“. This song demonstrates this principle beautifully.

The verse melody starts with possibility #2 above: non-tonic note with a tonic chord. (“There’s a fire/ starting in my heart..”) As the melody quickly descends to the tonic note, the chord choice moves off the tonic note.

Throughout the verse, whenever we hear a tonic note in the verse, we rarely if ever hear the tonic chord. When it does happen, it’s on a weak part of a bar, in a downward moving part of the melody. And the result is the gradual building of energy: the listener wants to hear that one possibility that keeps being avoided: the coinciding of the tonic note with the tonic chord in a strong position: beat 1 of a bar.

And we finally get it – at the start of the chorus. And there’s no denying that the song’s highest energy level happens right at that point. The chorus then keeps moving away from and back to that presentation of tonic note and chord together, so she is able to keep the energy at a high level throughout the chorus.

The wavering energy that comes from experimenting with the placement of the tonic note and chord is quite noticeable – not really subtle at all. If you find that your verse doesn’t really sound like a verse to you (i.e., it doesn’t feel like it’s moving forward to the chorus), think about how you’ve constructed your melody and chord progression. And do what you can to avoid the tonic until the chorus.

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  1. Pingback: Songwriting Link of the Day May 27, 2011 | Creative Music

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