The Differences Between Verse and Chorus Chord Progressions

Chorus progressions focus on the tonic chord. Here’s how to make that happen.

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NirvanaIf you take an hour and study pop song chord progressions, you’d be forgiven for feeling that that’s an hour you’ll never get back. On their own, most chord progressions are nondescript, even mundane. And that’s not a criticism. For most songs, even the best ones, you want your chords to stay below the radar.

A mundane chord progression allows your melody and lyrics to take the lead, and that’s usually a good thing. To use a non-musical example, let’s say you’re buying a nice piece of land to build a house on. The spectacular house you plan to build is the most important part; the land needs only to be smooth enough and just interesting enough to allow that house to be everything it can be.


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But if you are going to create a chord progression that’s more interesting, that takes more fascinating twists and turns, those kinds of progressions will work better in a verse than in a chorus.

The main reason for complex progressions working better in a verse than a chorus has to do more with the nature of a chorus. In most songs, when you compare the verse and the chorus, you’ll notice the following:

  1. Chorus melodies tend to be comprised of short, hooky, repetitive music ideas strung together. (Example: Nirvana: “Smells Like Teen Spirit“).
  2. Chorus rhythms simplify, becoming more predictable and groove-infused. (Example: Journey: “Don’t Stop Believing“)
  3. Choruses focus on the tonic chord (the chord representing the key of your song). (Example: practically every song ever written.)

Looking at that last point, you might think of a verse progression as one that wanders about, not straying too far from the tonic chord, but willing to look at other key areas. But once the chorus happens, you hear a different approach: the tonic chord becomes a magnet that draws the entire progression to itself.

Here’s an analogy that will help clear it up. First, a verse progression: imagine you’re taking your dog Rover for a walk on one of those retractable dog leashes. Rover pulls on the leash and the line gets pulled out and extended. As Rover gets more interested in things, he pulls more and more of the line. Of course, there’s a limit to how far he can go with this. The owner is always going to remain in sight.

When you feel that Rover has gone far enough, you typically push a button to prevent him from going further. You start retracting the leash, bringing him gradually in toward you.

In this analogy, you are the tonic chord. However much leash gets pulled out represents how far from the tonic chord the progression is allowed to go. That’s a verse progression. It’s all about “How far can I let Rover wander?”

Pushing the button and reeling him in is the chorus progression. It’s all about the tonic chord. Chord progressions aren’t going to wander very far, because it’s more about keeping chords focused on the tonic chord. Rover is now on a short leash, not wandering far from your heel.

When you structure your songs in this way, it usually results in a strong, attractive song. Verses wander, and that’s their nature. But as long as you switch to something concise and hook-based (i.e., the chorus, and usually before the 1-minute mark), you’ve got a great formula for a song that grabs attention and is easy to remember, something to which people want to return.

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Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m back to your blog again, and now i just feel like seeing example of this tonic chord arrangement. I wish you would just arrange one example of the tonic chord transition.

    Please let me know if you have an example already on tonic chord suspension method.

    Cheers to good music,
    lekana

    • Hello Lekana:

      You’ve used a couple of terms in your question that I am not familiar with, or at least not as pertains to this article. “Tonic chord transition” and “tonic chord suspension,” but I’ll try a guess at what you mean. In the chorus, chord progressions should focus tightly around the tonic chord, not straying too far. A couple of good examples of that might be:

      C F Dm G C
      C Am F G C

      As you can see, the progressions start on C, and then dwell entirely on chords that come from (and strongly indicate) C major. A verse progression might (but not always) wander a bit: C Am Bb F Eb Ab Gsus G, for example. Also, remember that even though verse progressions might have a tendency to be a bit more creative and wandering in nature, it’s quite possible to have a verse progression that works exactly like a chorus progression does: tonally strong, and focused on that tonic chord.

      If you could tell me more about what you’re looking for when you ask about “tonic chord suspension” method, I hope I can be more helpful.

      -Gary

  2. It’s an interesting experience reading this while listening to “Pop 101” by Marianas Trench. The song describes everything that’s happening within the song, from chord progressions to voice changers, to the bridge…Reading this post at the same time fills in some parts that aren’t mentioned in the song.

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