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Verses, Choruses, and the Role of the Tonic Chord

The key of your song is usually determined by the key of your chorus. Your song’s verse might be in A minor, but it’s quite common for the key to then switch to C major for the chorus, and that’s usually what we think of as the song’s main key.

When you put the magnifying glass on songs with a minor verse, you’ll typically discover that it’s not so much (or just) that the verse is in a minor key; it’s more often the case that the verse is deliberately borrowing mainly minor chords from the chorus’s major key.

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A perfect example of how this often works happens in Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” (Justin Timberlake, Timothy Mosley, Jerome Harmon, James Fauntleroy). The intro is solidly in Eb major, but the verse moves into what sounds like C minor. So we’ve had Eb major firmly in our minds, but now we’re listening to a minor key verse.

And then you’ll notice that practically all of the verse chords can be interpreted as being the ones you’d find in Eb major: Cm  Gm  Fm  G/B. That G/B (a G major chord with a B in the bass) is a category of chords called secondary dominant.

So even though we hear C minor as being the key of this verse, it’s important to note that all of the chords are the ones we’d find in Eb major. That’s an important point to make here, because as we then hear the key move to Eb major for the chorus, it doesn’t sound like an abrupt or startling change. It sounds like a gentle “nudge” from C minor to Eb major, and it works really well.

But there’s something else happening in the music that’s an important part of what keeps people listening to your song. Because the intro has fed us Eb major, the move to C minor in the verse makes us subconsciously desire to hear the return to Eb major, and in particular the tonic chord.

In “Mirrors”, though the verse chords are all members of the key of Eb major, we don’t ever hear the tonic chord — the Eb. The audience is patiently waiting, though, to hear that Eb return. Because they heard it in the intro, they know that it’s going to come back.

So when the chorus starts, it starts with what people have been waiting to hear: the tonic chord.

In your own songs, you can try a similar thing:

  1. Work out a chorus hook in a particular key.
  2. Now work out a verse progression that avoids the tonic chord. In the case of “Mirrors” they did it by doing a verse mainly in minor, and then switching to major for the chorus.

You can do this, however, by keeping everything in the same key. Try this:

  1. Choose a key for your song. C major, for example
  2. Work out a major progression for your chorus: C  Dm  Am  G, or something similar.
  3. Now work out a verse progression that avoids the chord C (G  Dm  G  F, or Em  Am  F  G, etc.)
  4. For the end of your verse, get the final chord or two to move smoothly to C. (Verse progression as it moves to the chorus might be this: Dm  F  Am  G, with the chorus progression being: C  Dm  Am  G

The benefit of this is that listeners without knowing it will want to hear that tonic chord — the C chord. They can hear that the chords they’re getting in the verse are moving all around that chord, and it sounds to their musical ears like the one chord that’s missing.

That kind of chord manipulation causes a pleasant kind of musical anticipation that really builds energy and keeps audiences listening.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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