Most songs, if they are one of several possible verse-chorus formats, usually start with a verse, and before the 1-minute mark will move on to the chorus.
The timing involved with this — i.e., the fact that we usually hear the chorus at or before the 1-minute mark, as you hear in a song like Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss”, which happens at exactly 60 seconds — is an important feature of popular songwriting. As you know, verses are often low-energy, story-telling elements, while choruses are higher-energy, emotional events.
And as you likely also know, if you spend too much time in the verse, listeners can become disinterested. It’s why the expression “Don’t bore us — get to the chorus” is an adage that most songwriters follow. If you’re taking longer than 1 minute to get to the chorus, you need to have a good reason for it.
And there are good reasons why it may take longer than a minute for the chorus to arrive, two of which are:
- The tempo is slow. Slow ballad-like songs mean that all the composite parts of a song might get stretched.
- The intro is long. Some songs might feature an intro that incorporates an instrumental solo, for example, meaning that you don’t really even get to the verse until the 30-second-or-later mark.
Depending on how you look at it, the component of any song that stands out as most important is usually the chorus. When all is said and done, the chorus is the part of a song that people remember, that everyone hums, and that everyone identifies as being “the song.”
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As listeners, we’re usually much more forgiving of a verse that rambles, or lacks strong hook-like elements. But a chorus? There needs to be something that stands out and waves a flag. Having a strong hook in a chorus is, in many songwriters’ minds, so important that many use the words hook and chorus interchangeably in conversation.
Why is it that a chorus surpasses a verse in importance? It has to do with music’s ability to generate emotional energy. We like music that causes us to experience strong feelings, but we like there to be an ebb and flow to that emotional level. Songs that are intense from start to finish tend to dull our senses when it comes to feeling emotional intensity.
There is no rule to follow here, only historical experience: a majority of hit songs from the past 5 or 6 decades do the following:
- Start with a verse that describes the beginning of a story, relationship or situation: generally low in emotional energy, but building as it goes. If it doesn’t build sufficiently, the songwriter might tag a pre-chorus at the end of the verse.
- Move to the chorus, and allow fuller, deeper emotions to come to the fore.
- Return to a second verse, allowing emotions to diminish.
- Follow up with a chorus that builds emotional levels again.
- Follow with a bridge, that, depending on the overall emotions of the song, might take emotions even higher, or might allow them to dissipate.
- Return to the chorus to build emotional levels again.
As you know, there are many variations on this basic format, but all designs are meant to do the same thing: allow the emotion of a song to rise and fall. Through it all, whatever happens in the chorus winds up being more important to the overall success of a song than what happens anywhere else.
This isn’t permission to write a lousy verse, of course. Verses and choruses need to be carefully paired so that one leads smoothly to the other. And you’d have to agree that the verse of “Just a Kiss” is clearly beautifully written and beautifully performed.
But when all is said and done, it’s the chorus that needs to have the strongest hook, with the simplest melodic and harmonic design. Verses can meander and wander around, but choruses need something that’s easy for audiences to hum, and easy for them to remember.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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