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Verse-chorus songs are very much the formal design of choice for many songwriters. The main reason for its popularity is the way it innately shapes musical energy. Audiences like when they perceive song energy moving up and down over time, and the verse-chorus design does this very naturally.
Of course, it only does that if you use the verse-chorus design “correctly.” Boredom happens when song energy is shaped counterintuitively. And what does counterintuitive shaping of song energy look like? Suppose you wanted to have the audience sense that a song is becoming more energetic, but you write your melody to move downward; that’s an example of counterintuitive writing. Generally, more energy is generated as a voice moves upward, and so you want to use that characteristic to its best advantage.
Here’s a quick checklist you can use to troubleshoot a song that just seems to be boring. Don’t treat these ideas listed below as rules, since good songs are a partnership of song elements, and you can find songs that violate every one of the pointers.
But if your song is missing something, and you suspect that the way you’ve implemented the verse-chorus design is at fault, think about the following, and see if there’s a way to renovate your song by making a few adjustments:
- Verses tell stories, while choruses express emotions. Use the verse to explain what’s going on, or to describe situations or people. Leave the emotions for the chorus. (“I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones) is a great example. The chorus lyric is stripped down to its most basic emotion.
- Verse melodies should lie in a low to medium vocal range. Because the verse is describing things and people, use the verse melody to minimize the emotional effect by keeping it a bit lower than the chorus. Hard to find better example of this than Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but the vast majority of hit songs in practically any genre demonstrate this important principle.
- Choruses with short, repetitive musical phrases will make verses retrospectively sound even better. Verses can wander a bit, and give us long phrases that don’t even necessarily use much repetition. That will fall flat on its face if you follow it up with a chorus that does the same thing. “Smells Like Teen Sprit” demonstrates this idea well. The verse melody moves around, up and down, wandering here and there as it lays out a series of thought and opinions. It’s followed up with a chorus that uses short, pithy phrases that repeat and are easy to remember.
- Verses often strip the instrumentation down to something understated and transparent. One of the best ways to generate musical energy, if your verse and chorus use similar sounding melodies, is to use minimal instrumentation for the verse, and then build it up for the chorus. But also, many songs use instrumentation that builds over the entire length of a song, adding instruments as the song moves forward. Listen to Eric Church’s “Smoke a Little Smoke” to hear how this can be expertly done. In Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” you hear the music build from simple acoustic guitar, then adding drums, piano, backing vocals, and then finally organ as it proceeds through verse 1, chorus, verse 2, and then the 2nd chorus.
- Build musical excitement by adding backing vocals to a chorus. If there isn’t enough distinction between your verse and chorus, musical excitement can be generated in the chorus by adding backing vocals. This is a favourite trick of songwriters who use the same melody for verse and chorus, but can be used, of course, in any song. This doesn’t mean avoiding backing vocals in the verse, but certainly you’ll want to really build it up in the chorus. It doesn’t need to be much. Coldplay’s “Fix You” uses a very simple, barely audible harmonizing line in the chorus.
Written by Gary Ewer.
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