Feist - I Wish I Didn't Miss You

How Listeners Subconsciously Evaluate Song Verses

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Without really knowing it, most people know that verses will be structured differently than choruses. It’s interesting, because if you asked people to describe the differences they’d likely not be able to do so, but most of the time they know the following is true:

  1. Verse melodies meander and wander more than choruses, and are less hook-dependent. Good verses will often use repetition as a way of providing structure, but repetition does not necessarily make something a hook. A good example is the verse of “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the verse for which uses lots of repetitive phrases, but isn’t very “hooky.”
  2. Verses use chord progressions that might purposely make the key ambiguous. While a good number of songs might use the same progression for the verse and chorus, many verses use progressions that make the tonic chord a bit difficult to pick out, and that’s purposeful. A classic example: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (Lennon & McCarntey), where the verse moves from G major to a quick visit to E minor via a secondary dominant B7. But the chorus locks solidly into G major (C  D7  G  Em  C  D7  G).
  3. Verse lyrics will provide the details of a story (actual or implied), while the chorus more commonly expresses feelings and reactions to that story. I love this example by Feist, “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You.” You can hear how the simple repeated line of lyric in the chorus affects the instrumental treatment, and drips with emotion. It’s a reminder that choruses can  — and often should — be simple and straightforward, allowing space for the listener to create their own emotional response.

Those are at least three characteristics of verses that most people subconsciously listen for in their favourite songs. And here’s something else, something that’s important for songwriters to know: a song’s chorus is far more vital to the success of a song than a song’s verse.

In practical terms, that means that most audiences will accept a song for which the verse isn’t overly attractive or riveting, as long as:

  1. the chorus has a strong hook;
  2. the chorus arrives relatively soon, hopefully before the 1-minute mark;
  3. there is a building of musical energy through the verse that leads smoothly to the chorus.

This is not a plea to stop worrying about a song’s verse, because it is possible for a verse to be unattractive to the point where listeners give up and want to hear something else.

But when songs have problems, more often than not the problems reside in the chorus: not hooky enough, not emotionally powerful enough, not interesting enough.

An audience will forgive a verse that takes time to love, but they will give up on a song where the chorus is missing the mark. So if you feel that your song sounds uninteresting or lacking energy, the 2-step process to fixing that is:

  1. Get the chorus working well, no matter where else in the song you think problems exist.
  2. Fix the verse so that it sounds like a good lead-in for the chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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