The presence of the tonic note and chord strengthens the structure of a song chorus.
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Whether it’s apparent to an audience or not — and it usually isn’t — a song is a short musical journey that places great significance on the tonic note and chord. The tonic chord, the one built on the key note of the song, acts as a starting and ending point for most of the progressions that you’ll use. So if your song is in the key of E major, the tonic chord (E) will figure prominently. Most of the progressions will start on E, and even if they don’t, you’ll notice that they’ll eventually end on it.
Even songs that use more complex progressions usually feature the tonic chord as the start and goal. It’s just that those progressions may have a roundabout way of getting back to it, often taking little “side-journeys” before returning to the tonic.
While most of your listeners won’t have the theoretical background in music to understand the intricacies of how the tonic chord works, they still know that it’s an important chord. That’s because the aural understanding of chords and how they work is a function and result of culture, not of musical intelligence or study. It’s something people sense. There is a kind of “musical relaxation” that happens when the tonic chord appears at the end of a progression.
Most songs use at least two separate progressions: one for the verse, and one for the chorus. There may be more than that if the song uses a pre-chorus (the optional section that leads into a chorus) or a bridge (another optional section that often occurs after the second chorus).
The chord progressions for a verse and chorus will both use the tonic chord as an important harmonic goal, but how they use it differs depending on what section of the song you’re talking about. Here are two important tips to keep in mind as you compose your songs:
- Chorus progressions are often harmonically stronger than verse progressions. Strength in a progression is a measurement of how important the tonic chord is. Progressions that clearly point to one chord as being the tonic are considered strong. Progressions that wander about, taking little side-journeys, are considered fragile. It’s common for verses and bridges to feature fragile progressions, and for choruses to feature strong ones.
- A chorus melody features the tonic note as a crucial part of its structure. While verse melodies can avoid that tonic note for long periods of time, a chorus melody works well if it’s structured to use the tonic note often as a starting point, and even more so as an ending point.
There is a good reason why the tonic note and chord figure so importantly in the chorus. That’s the part of the song that you want to have people remember. If there’s anything hummable in your song, it better be the chorus. So melodic structure and the accompanying chords should be simpler and more predictable than in other sections of your song.
The kind of simplicity that works well is the kind where the tonic note keeps appearing and reappearing, with short musical phrases that keep returning to the tonic. Adele’s “Someone Like You” is a typical example. The tonic note appears frequently in the verse, but rarely at the beginning of phrases. The chord progression is predictable, but it’s not until the chorus where we hear the tonic note placed prominently, with the tonic chord taking centre stage.
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