Strengthening a Chorus With Subtle Rhythmic Changes

The difference between a verse and chorus rhythm can be so subtle that no one notices. But subtlety is key in hit song production.


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Linkin ParkThe average audience, if there’s such a thing, might notice some of the more obvious differences between a verse and chorus – the fact that choruses usually sit at a higher pitch than verses, for example. But they may not be aware of the more subtle differences, such as the very understated contrast between verse and chorus rhythms. But you’ll probably find that subtlety goes a long way to making a song successful. Subtlety is that quality that makes a listener say, “I don’t know what it is I like about that song, but I really like it.

So what are the important differences between verse and chorus rhythms? Mainly that while verse rhythms may feature interesting rhythmic devices such as offbeats and syncopations, chorus rhythms tend to tighten up and become clearer and more beat-oriented.

Sometimes what we’re talking about is the rhythm of the lead vocal line, and sometimes it’s the rhythm of the backing instruments that changes as the song moves from verse to chorus.

To reiterate an important point, we’re usually talking about something very subtle, so it’s a good idea to look at a couple of hit songs to see this rhythmic difference in action.

  1. A good example of strengthening and tightening the backing rhythm is demonstrated in the song “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac, off their 1977 “Rumours” album. Drums and backing rhythm of the verse are highly syncopated. At the chorus, syncopations are minimized and tightened to be mainly a strong-beat-weak-beat accompaniment.
  2. You can see the subtle rhythmic modifications between verse and chorus melody in a song like Linkin Park’s “Burn It Down“, from their 2012 album “Living Things”. The verse melody displays many moments where long notes are placed in a syncopated position in a bar. At the chorus, the most noticeable rhythmic feature is the more straightforward, almost unsyncopated nature of the melodic rhythm.

You might think that simplifying rhythms in a chorus seems a bit counterintuitive, in the sense that we equate syncopation and other types of rhythmic displacement as a type of energy builder — something we’d want in a chorus. But in fact the reason that rhythmic simplification works so well in a chorus is that chorus hooks tend to be more memorable if they are accompanied by strong, simple rhythms.

Another important characteristic of choruses is the tendency for melodic phrases to be a bit shorter, and to focus in on the tonic note more than in the verse. In that sense, good songs tend to treat the chorus as an “arrival point”. You’ll sometimes hear the phrase “a verse that begs for a chorus” as a way of describing this very important characteristic.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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