What Makes an Effective Chorus Chord Progression?

A good chorus progression acts as a partner to a good verse progression.


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Willie Nelson - The WallThere are definitely common characteristics of chorus chord progressions that you can list, and for writing effective music, they’re important to know. Generally, the following is true of many chord progressions you typically find in a song chorus, regardless of genre:

  1. They’re tonally STRONG. That means that for most of the way along a chorus progression, the key is clear and unambiguous, with the tonic (key) chord being the focus.
  2. They’re short. They don’t tend to wander and venture out the same way a verse progression often does.
  3. They’re repetitive. It’s not uncommon to have most of a chorus progression centre in on four or five chords that have many repeating sections.

Having said that, you need to also consider the following: a chorus progression is only effective if it partners well with the verse that comes before it.

In other words, it’s possible to have an otherwise great verse progression, then an otherwise great chorus progression, but to have those two progressions fail as an entity.

A chorus progression works well if you can say, “Because my verse progression did that, I’m going to have my chorus progression do this.” In that sense, verses and choruses communicate with each other in important ways. Good chorus progressions are good because they partner well with the verse.

A really good relatively recent example is a great new song by Willie Nelson, “The Wall“, from his excellent 2014 album “Band of Brothers.” The chorus certainly fulfills the 2nd and 3rd points above: the progression is short, and it’s repetitive:

Chorus: Am  C  F

But for a song in C major, why does starting the chorus (and each phrase within the chorus) on Am work?

It works mainly because of the verse progression that precedes it (Verse: C  F  C  G), that progression resembling what you’d usually try to use in your chorus: strongly seat it in C major, and make it short and repetitive. Once you’ve drilled C major into your listener’s musical brain, what’s a songwriter to do? Venture out a little, of course.

And in Willie Nelson’s mind, if you’re not going to wander in the verse, you’d better do it in the chorus. And so that little diversion to Am to start the chorus works beautifully.

In fact, if anyone gave you those two progressions without telling you which one to use for the verse and which one for the chorus, you’d probably instinctively use the Am C F one as your verse; that’s the norm.

In songs where the chords are more complex and creative, it’s best to use your most complex (tonally fragile) ones in the verse, and switch to something tonally stronger for your chorus. But the lesson you can learn from “The Wall” is this: in songs where both the verse and the chorus feature simple, basic chords that don’t venture very far from the key, you can easily mix and match.

And when you’re done, you should be able to look at your chorus progression, and see it as a logical, musical response to the kind of chords you used in the verse.


Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. ¡Muchas gracias! Yo cree un algoritmo informático (no un software), que es una máquina de crear “estribillos” o “chorus”. Los fraseos (frases melódicas) son tan PEGADIZOS (dulces, melodiosos, cantábiles, rítmicos), que sirven para “coro” o “estribillo”. Querría compartirlo con otros. El asunto es la pereza de escribir un blog. Aquí, donde vivo, nuestra cultura, es la de desmoralizar, al otro. Por lo tanto no hago nada. Nunca agradecen. Es distinto con la cultura angloparlante, que es política o cortesana. Agradece, anima, estimula, incita al “pogreso”. Es así, que, debido a la “mala onda” de mi cultura, no lo he hecho. Ahora, podría hacerlo, si, alguien, me acicateara, a que lo realizase. Tengo todo hecho, ya. El trabajo consistiría en crear un blog, para ti. No tengo interés en hacer, lo que, tu, efectúas. ¡En absoluto! Resulta, que, tu, sabes bien, que hay un instinto, que nos hace desear, lo que es divulgar nuestro saber. Es lo opuesto a la curiosidad. Es el anhelo de educar, instruir, migrar conocimientos, al otro. Por lo tanto … si tu quisieras conocer, cómo funciona este maravilloso ALGORITMO, que crea estribillos, coros y pasajes melódicos-pegadizos … anímame, a que me ponga a trabajar, para ti. Mi correo, ya, lo sabes. Escríbeme tu dirección de blog. (Nada de correos o archivos en las nubes; sino un blogs, que, yo, crearé, exclusivamente, para ti.) ¡Saludos, maestro!

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