Strengthen the Chorus by Limiting Chord Choices

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Lady Gaga - The Edge of GloryA 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.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Great stuff. Musicians get very caught up in chord progressions, but listeners hear melody and lyric, and not much else. No one except another songwriter ever fell in love with a song because of a chord progression. Chords are best when they’re so simple you hardly notice them. Very useful blog…

  2. Hi ,Gary.Very interesting article, thank you for this!I’ve observed most of today hits, with more hiphop in them (eminem – space bound, no love, nelly – just a dream) and i found that chords trough entire song is the same, no fragile , just strong chords, is it true?

    • Hi Peter:

      You’ll notice that with many of the Billboard Hot 100 hits, you’ll often get strong progressions throughout, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as such. The thing about fragile progressions, i.e., the ones that may be tonally ambiguous or otherwise complex in some way, is that when they occur, they should usually show up in the verse (if the song is a verse-chorus structure). Fragile progressions can sometimes alienate younger audiences, the kind of audience typically targeted by songwriters aiming for the Billboard Hot 100. So writers for performers like Nelly, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, and so on, will often use strong progressions throughout, as they see a need to *immediately* appeal to audiences. You’re more likely to see fragile-type progressions on Billboard’s Rock Chart.

      Interestingly (and I’m currently working on a post about this) if the song is a 2-part verse structure with no chorus, or an ABA format (verse – 2nd part of verse – back to verse), you’ll want the verse to be strong, and allow the 2nd part to venture harmonically.

      Thanks for your great question, Peter.

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