A song without a chorus needs some careful consideration regarding where to place the high notes.
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In verse-chorus songs, it’s typical for the melody to start low, move higher, and then connect to a chorus which uses the highest notes of a song. But what do you do about songs that don’t have a chorus? There are several options:
- Verse only (Johnny Cash: “I Walk the Line“; Amanda McBroom: “The Rose“)
- Verse only: (Blues) (Muddy Waters: “Got My Mojo Working“)
- Verse with refrain (Bob Dylan: “Blowin’ in the Wind“)
- Verse with bridge (Often ABA form) (Paul McCartney: “Yesterday“; John Lennon: “Norwegian Wood“)
Just to clarify some of the terminology: a refrain is a short section that completes a verse. The fact that the same line ends each verse does not necessarily make it a refrain. A refrain typically means that the verse it’s attached to requires that refrain to finish the lyric (sentence), the melody and the chord progression.
That’s how a refrain differs from a chorus. A chorus is usually a stand-alone section that happens once a verse is finished. To add to the confusion between the definitions of refrain and chorus, a chorus might also complete a verse, but the main difference is that a chorus is longer, and can exist as its own stand-alone section.
You can therefore usually tell the difference between a refrain and a chorus by determining if the section works well being sung over and over.
If you’re writing one of the forms listed above, here are some tips to get that verse format working for you:
- Verse only:
- Most of the time, a verse-only song needs to feel complete at the end of that verse. The sense of completeness usually comes from the chord progression, so end your verse with a I-chord, or anything that sounds complete to your ears.
- To work on its own, a verse melody needs to be structured to have a high point. Most verse-only songs will use a melody that has 4 or 8 phrases. (“I Walk the Line” uses a 4-phrase verse.) Use the 3rd phrase to move the melody to its highest notes.
- Verse only: Blues.
- With the blues form, you have options to create what sounds like a chorus, and Muddy Waters does this in “Got My Mojo Working” by singing a verse in a higher range.
- If you opt to simply sing verse after verse, the blues chord progression is what makes it all work, and so a melodic high point is less necessary. To provide variety, many blues songs feature a verse or two, followed by an instrumental solo.
- Verse with refrain:
- Many verse and refrain songs are formatted so that the refrain is the final phrase of a 4-phrase melody, or the final 2 phrases in an 8-phrase melody. (“Blowin in the Wind” is an 8-phrase structure: 6-phrase verse, with a 2-phrase refrain.)
- Use the refrain to bring the melody down lower to a suitable close. In “Blowin’ in the Wind”, the melody sits around the dominant (5th) note, in the mid-to-high range. The refrain then brings it down to the tonic (key) note.
- Verse with bridge:
- A verse with a bridge is often constructed to repeat the verse after the bridge, then start a new verse-bridge-verse section. In that respect, many songs with a verse and bridge are in ABA form.
- As with most bridges, move the notes of the bridge higher than the verse, and allow a repeat of the verse to allow the melody to move lower once again. For songs in verse-bridge form, therefore, the climactic moment can often be found in the bridge.
These are just a few examples of how to write a song that doesn’t use a chorus. Keep in mind that instrumental solos can play a big role in getting these kinds of songs to work, by preventing a song from sounding overly repetitious.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)