It’s not usually enough to simply create different progressions for your verse and chorus; these are the vital differences between the two.
These days in pop songwriting, it’s not all that unusual for a verse and chorus to use the same chord progression. “One More Night” (Maroon 5) is a good example. But for the most part, with songs that use a verse-chorus formal design, you’ll probably develop a verse progression that then changes when it gets to the verse.
The thing to remember is that it’s not enough to simply say that verse progressions are usually different from chorus progressions. There’s more to it than that. Historically (and for the most part it’s still true), verse progressions tend to wander a bit more than chorus progressions, with chords becoming more predictable in a chorus.
That wandering quality typical of the verse is part of what we mean by a “fragile” chord progression. In this context, a fragile progression means that while the progression sits rather firmly in a key, it avoids hammering the tonic chord home. In a sense, fragile progressions can tend to be a bit ambiguous, tonally speaking.
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The normal way for songs in a verse-chorus format to proceed is to use fragile progressions in the verse and strong ones in the chorus. A strong progression is one that makes the tonic chord much more obvious.
Specifically, here are the main differences between strong and fragile progressions:
- FRAGILE: Avoids the tonic chord. STRONG: Makes the tonic chord a main feature of the progression.
- FRAGILE: Couples with a melody that avoids the tonic note. STRONG: Couples with a melody that has the tonic note as an important melodic goal.
- FRAGILE: Uses chords whose roots move by 2nds and 3rds. STRONG: Uses chords whose roots move by 4ths and 5ths.
A great song by indie group Melody’s Echo Chamber, called “I Follow You“, displays these crucial differences very well. Give this song a couple of listens, and you’ll start to notice the following:
- The verse avoids the tonic chord. The song is in C major, and all the chords come from that key. But the one chord that rarely happens is the tonic chord: C major. And when it does happen, it’s inverted (i.e., the root of the chord is not the bass note).
- The verse never uses the tonic chord in the melody. While the chorus is similarly shy about using it, it serves as a strong melodic goal: we finally get the tonic note at the end of the chorus.
- The roots of the verse chords move mainly by 2nds. The verse progression: F/A Em/G Dm/F Em/G…etc.
- The roots of the chorus chords move mainly by 4ths. The chorus progression: Dm G Em Am Dm G C.
You also hear other important differences between verse and chorus. In the verse, each phrase of the melody always starts between beats 1 and 2 of each bar of music, creating a syncopation. But for the chorus, the melodic phrases usually start on beat 3 of each bar, which is a much stronger position in the bar.
Also, you’ll notice that practically all the chords of the chorus are root position chords, which means that the bass is playing the letter name of the chord. That works very well with strong nature of the chorus progression. But for the verse, each chord is an inverted chord: the bass is never playing the root. This adds to the fragile nature of the verse progression.
What songwriters can learn from “I Follow You” is that it really works well to place fragile characteristics in a verse, and then allow chords, rhythms and melodies to become much stronger and more predictable in the chorus.
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