Download “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6 E-book Bundle. Become a top-level songwriter, starting now.
A song’s chord progression is the vehicle that takes the listener on a musical journey. If you’re looking to add a bit of harmonic complexity to your song, it’s far better to do that in the verse than in the chorus. In other words, your musical journey can have some interesting twists and turns, but by the time you’ve reached the chorus, it’s far better to give the audience something simpler and stronger.
Keep in mind that the more complex your chord choices, the more you are possibly distancing yourself from your target audience, particularly if you are trying to target the young, hit-seeking audience.
And you’d be surprised how simple things can be in the chord progression world without being boring. The band America’s No. 1 hit single “A Horse With No Name”, from their 1972 debut album, uses two chords (Em and D6add9) in both the verse and the chorus. Not only that, the melody lingers around the dominant note (B) for much of the verse. So it’s a song that seems to break a number of “rules.”
In a simple, two section format (i.e., verse – chorus), it’s the chorus that needs to be solid, predictable and strong. If you carry the “journey” analogy through to its conclusion, the verse represents the journey, while the chorus represents an arrival, a kind of harmonic resting point. At the chorus, there should be little or no harmonic ambiguity; you should be finally allowing the listener to rest.
Complexity is all relative. In most pop song genres, we’re simply talking about a greater number of chord choices in the verse, and then limiting choices to 4 or 5 different chords in the chorus.
A good example of this kind of “complexity” (larger chord set) in a verse followed by simplicity (smaller chord set) in a chorus is a song I mentioned in previous blog posting: Lady Gaga’s hit single “The Edge of Glory.” The verse generates energy through the use of an open cadence. The verse uses a much longer set of chord changes, amounting to a musical journey that simplifies for the chorus:
VERSE: A E D / D E F# B D Bm D E
CHORUS: A E F#m D…
The benefit to a chorus with a limited chord set is that it gives it a much “hookier” sound. It makes it easier to remember, usually easier to sing, and it acts as a satisfying resolution to a verse that has a longer chord map.
So if you’re looking to emulate most hit songs’ characteristic of creating strong, singable choruses that are easy to remember, try limiting your chord choices to only 4 or 5.
Follow Gary on Twitter