There’s nothing like the term “song form” to have one’s eyes glaze over. In songwriting, you just want to get going with your writing. And you’ve probably written dozens of songs up to this point without even giving the term “form” a second (or even a first) thought.
When we talk about form, we’re talking about a song’s structure. More often than not, structure is something audiences don’t especially notice. Like the struts, joists and beams of a house, structure is usually hidden, or at least something that doesn’t demand attention.
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One of the most obvious demonstrations of song form is its verse-chorus structure. The way the song moves from one section to the next can be crucial to its success. Its tricky to diagnose problems with a song’s structural design. The verse and chorus might sound great by themselves, but when put side by side, they fail to generate any kind of interest.
Why Verse-Chorus Partnership is So Important
So what’s happening when you have a great verse, a great chorus, but a lousy song? Here’s the answer: audiences subconsciously compare verses and choruses, and when they do, they need to hear a chorus as providing just the right kind of verse partnership on the one hand, but contrast on the other.
You may have started your song by working out the chorus first, but even in that case, the chorus needs to sound like a “logical” partner for the verse that comes before it. In other words, when you reach the end of a verse, a chorus needs to provide the kind of musical release demanded by the verse.
When that doesn’t happen, that‘s when you find that you’ve got a great verse, a great chorus, and a lousy song. So what can you do to be sure that a verse and chorus are partnering well? Here are 5 tips to consider:
- Move from a “fragile” verse to a “strong” chorus. I use the term “fragile” mostly when I talk about chord progressions, but in fact, it’s a term that can apply to practically every component of a song. A fragile quality simply means that there is a (usually slight) characteristic of musical ambiguity. In chords, the progression Em Dm F G could be seen as slightly fragile, in the sense that we can’t tell if those 4 chords are from the key of A minor, or from C major, or even from some other key. We like the ambiguity, but it works better in a verse than in a chorus. A chorus should exhibit tonally strong progressions: C Dm F G, for example. Fragile melodies have a wandering quality. Fragile lyrics require us to piece together thoughts and expressions to discern what’s really going on. All those fragile elements work better in a verse than in a chorus.
- Keep the verse from getting too long. A long verse causes listeners to lose focus, and the music starts to lack direction. Get to the chorus within 1 minute, and usually by the 45-second mark for mid-tempo or faster songs.
- Make sure that chorus lyrics express emotions churned up by the verse lyrics. Good verse lyrics will describe people, events and situations. Audiences need to hear the chorus lyric as expressing an emotion that relates directly to whatever is being said in the verse. Listen to the lyrics of Adele’s “Someone Like You” as a great example.
- Let a natural-sounding build happen in your song’s instrumentation between verse and chorus. If your song uses a single instrument, like guitar or piano, the build might simply be playing louder. But if you’re using a band, think carefully about how you want the instrumentation to change as the chorus begins. Sometimes, subtle changes are all you need, but for songs that are lacking in energy, you might need something more obvious. Passenger’s “Let Her Go” shows a great development of instrumentation from intro to verse to chorus, and then a completely unaccompanied ending.
- Consider an open cadence at the end of the verse. An open cadence is simple: it means ending your verse on a non-tonic chord. “Let Her Go” is also a good example of this. The verse ends on a V-chord, and that subtle feature causes listeners to need to hear an eventual resolution.
Remember, a good song means that its structure is working well. One of the most important aspects of good song structure is how verses and choruses communicate and partner with each other. Put your song analysis skills to work, and compare the verse and chorus of the song you’re working on right now. Are they partnering up, or are they simply arguing with each other?
Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” (3rd edition) is the chapter that deals with melody writing and lyric. It shows why the world’s best melodies have been successes, and how to apply those qualities to your own song melodies. Get this eBook, and the complete bundle, along with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”