Bruce Springsteen’s classic tune “Thunder Road”, from his 1975 album “Born To Run”, is a great model for study if you’re trying to get a handle on writing a song that doesn’t use a chorus. Though the song steers clear of the standard verse-chorus-bridge format typical of so many songs in the popular music genres, it achieves what that time-honoured song design usually gives us.
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There are several ways to write chorus-less songs. The AAA… format — a simple verse structure of 16 or 32 bars that comes to a harmonic close that then repeats for however number of verses you please — is probably most common. That design simply requires that you create a nice build that reaches an apex near the end, often finishing with a refrain line that helps to dissipate the built-up energy. Many of Bob Dylan’s songs are brilliant examples of this (“The Times They Are A-Changin'”, for instance.)
But Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” is a chorus-less song of a different type. It goes through all the motions of a song that’s just given you a verse-chorus-bridge design, until you go back and study it, and then you realize that it’s not done that at all. In a sense, it’s a musical event that spins out from an original idea, cleverly contouring the energy to mimic what you’d find in verse-chorus-bridge songs.
The first clue that you’re dealing with a song that doesn’t use a chorus is the fact that you don’t get repeating lyrics. It’s a text that switches back and forth between story-telling (“And the screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways/ Like a vision she dances, across the porch…“) and philosophical statements (“With a chance to make it good somehow/ Hey, what else can we do now?/ Except roll down the window? And let the wind blow back your hair…”)
What keeps the song from sounding like a long, run-on sentence is the way the energy is contoured. We know that verses usually exhibit the lowest energy of a song, building to the chorus which displays some of the highest. A bridge will often push the excitement even higher, setting things up for a final run-through (or two) of the chorus. That energy is contoured with the help of melodic range, instrumentation, and vocal harmonies.
Even though “Thunder Road” doesn’t give us verses and choruses, we get all the characteristics of that formal design – kind of a “quasi-verse-chorus-bridge”, as follows:
“Verse”: And the screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways…
“Verse” repeat: Don’t run back inside…
“Pre-Chorus”: You can hide ‘neath your covers…
“Chorus”: Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair…
“Bridge”: Well, I got this guitar, and I learned how to make it talk…
Final “Chorus” repeats: ” There were ghosts in the eyes/ Of all the boys you sent away…
What distinguishes each section is phrase length (8 and/or 16 bars long for each section), instrumentation, the addition of vocal harmonies in certain sections, and also chord choice.
In fact, it’s chord choice that keeps the song moving forward, pulling the listener along. Most section ends with a dominant chord (i.e. C or C7 in the key of F major). That dominant chord typically needs to resolve to a tonic chord, so each section of the song ends with a chord that requires a resolution — a perfect way to keep your audience listening.
The lesson for songwriters in “Thunder Road” is that if you want to write a chorus-less song, you still need to provide a way for your audience to feel the energy ups and downs that typically come from a verse-chorus-bridge design. A song without a chorus is not simply one long verse. A verse-chorus song naturally gives the listener opportunities to feel tension and resolution. That kind of contour does not necessarily exist in chorus-less songs, and so you need to be sure that you’re giving that essential aspect of music important thought.
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