Creating Chord Progressions That Beg for the Chorus

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Justin Timberlake - MirrorsIn most music, the tonic chord acts as both an anchor and a beacon. The tonic chord (i.e., the one that represents the key of your song) serves as home base for your chord progressions. Your progressions will usually do one or both of the following:

  1. Act as an anchor by starting on the tonic chord, moving away from it, and then moving back to it; and/or…
  2. Act as a beacon by starting somewhere else, wandering around, eventually wandering back to the tonic.

That’s nothing new. Since the early 1600s, tonal music (by which we mean music that’s in a key) has always done this. Music tends to set up one chord – the tonic – as an anchor/beacon, and then everything that happens in the song keeps that chord in its sights.

When you look at the popular music genres of pop, rock, country, folk, and jazz, you’ll see that verse progressions often follow the second example above: they frequently start on a non-tonic chord, and spend the rest of the verse finding a way to eventually hit the tonic chord, which typically happens either at the end of the verse or the start of the chorus.

You’ll notice that chorus progressions often follow the first example above: They frequently start on the tonic, with that chords acting as a kind of beacon, always drawing the progression back to the tonic chord.

This difference usually goes unnoticed by listeners, but songwriters need to consider it to be very important. When songs start on non-tonic chords and then spend the verse finding a way back to the tonic, song energy and momentum is generated. The listener subconsciously senses that search for the tonic, and it keeps them listening.

That “search for the tonic” is what you might call “begging for the chorus.” Just so that you can see a simple example of what we mean by this, you can hear from the following progression that even though the tonic chord isn’t present, it’s pull is undeniable:

Dm  G7  Dm  G7…

Compare that to a typical simple chorus progression:

C  F  G  F  C  F…

In the first progression, the most obvious key where both the Dm and G7 chords naturally exist is the key of C major. And even though the C chord hasn’t been played, you can feel its presence as you keep thinking that it’s going to appear.

In the second progression, the tonic chord acts as an anchor, and the progression keeps starting there and returning to it.

So the short answer to the question, “How do I create a chord progression that begs for the chorus”, is to imply the tonic without actually giving it. Provide chords that move in and around the tonic, but avoid offering the tonic chord until you reach the chorus.

It’s one of the reasons why so many songs focus on minor chords for a verse progression, moving to major ones for the chorus, such as in Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors.” The song is in the key of E-flat major. The verse avoids the tonic chord, giving the progression: Cm  Gm  Fm  Ab. The chorus finally arrives, we get: Eb  Bb  Ab…

To create song verses and beg for the chorus, start by writing out the seven chords that belong to the key you’ve chosen for your song. If it’s in a major key, try verse progressions that focus mainly on ii, IV, V and vi, moving to I, ii, IV and V for the chorus. If you’re working in a minor key, try verse progressions that focus on iv, minor-v, VI and VII, moving to i, iv and V (major or minor) for the chorus.

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Written by Gary Ewer
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3 Comments

  1. I’m trying to write a song in Bb on guitar with chord progression of 1,6,2,5,1 for the verses. But I straggle to create a chorus and bridge. Ie. So that the mood change leading to a climax in the chorus. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Hello “Keni Toili Latu,”
      I think of the main points of this posting is to imply the tonic but not explicitly give it. You should try a verse progression that does not have the tonic chord appearing.

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