It’s OK, even desirable, to have verses that are rhythmically complex. But choruses need to settle into a recognizable groove.
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Verses differ from choruses in several ways. It’s easy to notice things like melodic range: we know that chorus melodies tend to be higher in pitch than verse melodies. We also know that verse lyrics will tend to be descriptive of people and situations, while choruses tend to allow a more emotional response. The difference also extends to rhythm, particularly as it relates to melody and background instrumentation. Verses (especially first verses) will benefit from more complexity such as syncopation (off-beats) and other rhythmic devices, allowing the chorus to settle in and make the basic beat more obvious.
Lots of songs do this, and current hit “Not Over You“, written by Gavin DeGraw and Ryan Tedder, is a good model. The structure of the song is a basic verse-chorus-bridge design, with a simple piano-percussion accompaniment, so it’s easy to analyze and hear what’s going on.
The piano intro alternates between on-the-beat and off-the-beat articulations:
Because the left hand plays in rhythmic unison (i.e., the same rhythm) with the right, it’s not easily clear where the beat is.
When the vocal line begins, you notice that the syncopations continue, with an alternation between on-the-beat and off-the-beat rhythmic cells. And the first vocal line ends on the weak part of beat 3, further veiling the rhythm. In other words, there’s a purposeful attempt to make the rhythmic patterns and groove of the song a bit ambiguous:
As I mentioned, this kind of thing is not uncommon at all in verses. Ambiguity (what I’ve often called “fragility”) works well in verses, because it goes hand-in-hand with the recounting of a story.
Choruses, however, usually need to solidify. In the case of rhythm you have two choices: 1) either allow the syncopated rhythms to be replaced with a strongly on-the-beat melody; or 2) continue with a chorus melody where syncopation is an important motif, but accompany it with strong on-the-beat backing accompaniment.
In the case of “Not Over You”, they opt for the second approach. Syncopation remains an important rhythmic idea, but everything becomes much more rhythmically solid with the introduction of a strong half-note pseudo-bass drum effect that makes it absolutely clear where the beat lies.
For verse 2, rhythmic syncopation remains an important structural tool for the melody, but the bass drum remains, strengthening the underlying rhythmic structure. It works well: songs should generally move from fragile to strong.
This concept of rhythmic treatment can be a tricky one, because we usually want words to come out in a very natural way. Forcing words into unnatural rhythmic patterns can compromise their effect on listeners, and your lyric’s emotional potential.
So be certain that any rhythmic ideas you use allow you to pulse words in a natural way. Experimenting with a bit of rhythmic ambiguity in the verse can be a great way to increase the emotional impact of your chorus.
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