Writing a Verse That Prepares the Audience for the Chorus

Sharon Van Etten’s amazing tune, “Your Love is Killing Me,” shows exactly how a verse can make a chorus sound fantastic.


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Sharon Van EttenChoruses are typically easier to write than verses because the chorus is where most of the hook-like elements are. And because listeners like to hear hooks, you just need to write one good, hooky line, and you’ve got the bulk of your chorus dealt with. The real trick, though, is to write a verse that’s interesting enough to make the audience want to wait for that killer chorus.

Sharon Van Etten’s amazing tune, “Your Love is Killing Me,” from her album “Are We There”, is a wonderful example of what a verse can do to help power up the chorus that follows it.

If you take the time to listen to this song several times, you’ll notice that the chords do little to grab attention, mainly moving back and forth between the three chords Em (or Em/G), D and A, with the addition of G in the bridge. It’s the creative instrumental work, and that haunting, aching melody that really does the trick.

And speaking of the melody, everything you want or need to know about verse writing is here. Specifically, here are the principles of good verse construction that “Your Love is Killing Me” demonstrates.

  1. Start low. Verse melodies tend to start lower in pitch, giving room for allowing it to move higher as the chorus looms.
  2. Pull listeners into your song’s message with the quality of your voice. This is a performance issue, not a songwriting one. But if you really want to make people listen to what you’re saying, you need to find varied ways to communicate your lyric. Van Etten’s soft, silky voice at the start of the verse belies the angst of the chorus when it happens.
  3. Move higher. As a verse moves to connect with a chorus, you’ll gain considerable power and momentum if you move that line higher. The start of the verse has her moving in and around the low notes A, B and C#. By the time we get to “Break my legs so I won’t walk to you…”, the melody moves up to E and F#. Then when the line “You like it…” appears, we get the highest notes of the song, hitting the high A an octave above the start of the song.
  4. Create an interesting instrumentation. Again, not a songwriting issue, but this will serve as an important partner in bringing good songwriting to life. And these days, when so many songwriters are doing their own producing, you can inadvertently kill a good song if your instrumentation is lacklustre or unstructured. Producing is a bit outside the scope of this blog, but you’ll never go wrong getting advice here.
  5. Don’t let a verse’s climactic moment outshine the chorus. We often talk about a song’s climactic moment, and that it usually happens in a chorus. In fact, songs can have several climactic moments. But it’s true that the one in the chorus is usually going to be the memorable one. In “Your Love is Killing Me”, she purposely stays away from giving anything in the verse that steal’s the chorus’ thunder. And similarly, the bridge actually brings energy down – a good idea, since the chorus is sizzling with emotional power.

This bluesy, power-balled-like tune lends itself well to the kind of details I just described. But in practically any and every genre of music, you’ll find that verses start low, move higher, get more intense, and then connect in an upward direction to the song’s chorus. It’s a formula that’s never going to let you down.

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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  1. That is all very relevant and true, but as with most things in music, there is no one size fits it all solution. Most of the songs we produced for songwriters go by the rules above, but we also created some very successful tunes doing the exact opposite. Leaving the verses as the strong point in the production and stripping back the instrumental and vocals for the chorus can give a really nice surprise to the song making it memorable.

    • Yes, for sure. That’s the creative power of music. I think it’s why I often speak of principles, which guide, rather than rules, which dictate. The principles I’ve described in this post are certainly the norm, however, and my point was to show how “Your Love is Killing Me” demonstrates them very well.

      Songs that go against the norm can be deliciously wonderful, and I love that music is like that.

      Thanks very much for your comment, I appreciate it.

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