5 Ways a Song’s Verse and Chorus Should Differ

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Microphone and MusicThere are important differences between verse and chorus structure in a song, differences that are not usually clearly obvious to the listener. But as a songwriter you need to get this bit of compositional architecture right. Done correctly, a verse features a build in forward motion that culminates in, and is answered by, the chorus. It means that you may have to do a bit of “backwards” composing if your initial song ideas feel like they belong in a chorus. In any case, it’s necessarily to be mindful of the key structural differences between verse and chorus, and make adjustments as you go.

Song energy usually builds through a verse, and bumps upward to a higher plane in a chorus, typically peaking in the second half of the chorus. After that, you have several options, including quickly dissipating that energy to return to the verse, or perhaps building energy even further throughout a bridge.

By energy, the temptation is to think of the busy-ness or loudness of the drums and accompanying instruments, but that’s only one factor to consider. In fact it may rate somewhat lower in importance to a songwriter, since loudness is an easy and obvious one to manipulate. There are other more subtle factors that amount to being more important.

Take a look at the following list, and see if you’re doing everything you can to incorporate the crucial differences between verse and chorus design:

  1. The Tonic Note and Chord. The tonic note is the one represented by the key of your song, and the chord built on it is the tonic chord. So the note C is the tonic note of a song in C major. The important point is that you’ll see the tonic note and chord appear together more often in a chorus than in a verse. Verse melodies will avoid over-using the note because there’s a lot of energy associated with the tonic. It’s better used in the chorus. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” displays this concept rather clearly.
  2. Story Description Vs. Emotional Response. Verse lyrics should describe situations, people and relationships, while chorus lyrics should focus on the emotional response to those descriptions. You want listeners to emote along with you, but that won’t be possible if you use a verse to simply emote. Set the stage in the verse, and then the listener will have something to relate to in the chorus.
  3. Melodic Direction. It’s an over-simplification to think of verse melodies as always rising to meet the chorus. If that were always the case, all verse melodies would be upward-moving tunes, which we know isn’t true. But it’s a common trait to see verse and chorus melodies exhibiting key melodic shapes that go in opposite directions. So if you find that you use lots of upward-moving gestures in your verse, try countering with downward-moving ones in your chorus.
  4. Instrumental Range. This is more a musical arrangement issue rather than a compositional one: ensure that your accompanying instruments (especially guitar and keyboard) are using higher voicings in the chorus, and that backing rhythms are a little busier.
  5. Backing Vocals. The chorus should feature more use of background vocals than the verse.
How you know you’ve done it all right is if the verse sounds like it naturally leads to, and begs for, the chorus. That natural pull toward the chorus builds listenership, and explains why some songs keep people coming back while other songs just fade away.

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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