Manipulating the Tonic Chord For a More Effective Verse

It’s usually not hard to know that a song we’re listening to has reached the chorus. We’ll notice that the chord progression will get shorter and simpler, and target the tonic chord more. The melody of a chorus is often made up of short, catchy, hooky bits that get repeated over and over, and the lyrics simplify and become rather emotional.

Once we’ve got a chorus that we like, what do we do to make a verse that partners well with it? In general, a good verse offers a bit of a story, or describes a situation or circumstance, and that usually sets up what we eventually hear in the chorus. At least regarding lyrics, a good verse makes us want to keep listening.

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But what about melodies and chords? What should you be doing to keep people listening until we snag them with the chorus hook?

One of the most common ways songwriters keep listeners engaged is to avoid overusing the tonic chord. The tonic chord is the one that represents the key of your song. So if the chorus of your song is in, let’s say, G major, the G chord is the tonic chord. Many songwriters try avoiding overuse of that chord in the verse, and it’s a great way to build tension and momentum: Avoiding the tonic makes us want to listen until we hear it.

Minor Verse and Major Chorus

That’s why it’s relatively common for verses to be in minor keys, and then switch to major for the chorus. A song chorus in G major that’s preceded by its relative minor — E minor — sounds great, and often works well, as in this example:


Em  Am  Em  D |Em Am D  Bm  (repeat)


G  C  G  D  |Em  C  G  D (repeat)

Keeping the Entire Song in Major

But let’s say that you like the sound of your G major chorus progression, and you want to use that progression in your verse as well, but with a different melody. Here’s a way to do that that helps to keep your audience anticipating the power of your chorus hook.

Let’s say you’ve decided to use this chord progression in both your verse and chorus:

G  Am  C  D |Em  C  G  D

As you work out your verse melody, consider the following two ideas:

  1. Minimize your use of the tonic chord with a tonic note (i.e., wherever a G chord happens, avoid having a G melody note at the same time.)
  2. If you do use a tonic chord with a tonic note, place a different note in the bass. (in other words, use an inversion: G/B, for example)

What you’re doing when you do this is you avoid giving the audience the satisfaction of hearing a tonic note with a root position tonic chord. That causes a pleasant sense of what you might call “musical disquiet” — a sense that the power of the tonic has been purposely diminished.

When you write your chorus melody, that’s the time to feature the tonic note more, especially allowing it to coincide with the tonic chord. Make sure your chorus melody makes good use of repetition, and that it keeps moving back to the tonic note, especially at the ends of musical phrases. That ensures that your chorus has the power it needs to hook the listener.

Much of this can and will happen on an instinctive level. But if you feel that you’ve got a good chorus, but you’re having trouble making the verse sound interesting enough to get the listener to stay with you until the chorus, avoiding overusing tonic note and chord together in the verse may be the solution.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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