A verse’s chord progression is sometimes short and strong, sometimes long and wandering. But no matter what its character, or how long or short it is, it usually does one important thing: it aims for the first chord of the chorus.
Sometimes a verse will start in a key that’s different from the chorus. Often it sits in the same key as the chorus. Sometimes you’ll find songs where the verse and the chorus use the same progression, like Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (1967).
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Occasionally, you’ll write a song where it feels like you got to the chorus too soon. It might be because:
- the verse is just too short for comfort;
- the verse melody is very repetitious or simple;
- the end of the verse melody is too far away from the starting notes of the chorus.
Whatever the reason, songwriters often solve that problem by inserting an optional section between the verse and chorus called a pre-chorus. The main duty of a pre-chorus section is to smooth out the transition from verse to chorus, or at least to balance the form of the song so that there’s a sensible energy build that makes the chorus sound more welcoming.
There’s no one good definition for what a pre-chorus should be. It can be as short as a bar, or it can be longer — 8 or more bars long. I often point to the hit song “Firework” sung by Katie Perry as a good recent example of a pre-chorus, simply because it demonstrates in a “textbook” kind of way what the pre-chorus is there for.
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In that song, you hear the melody start to rise through the pre-chorus, energy start to build, and when the chorus finally happens, it sounds as though we’ve been waiting for it.
The chord progression can often play an important role in what a pre-chorus should be doing. Since a verse progression is supposed to target the first chord of the chorus, it’s an important part of the musical energy of a song that the pre-chorus do the same thing: it needs to aim relentlessly for the chorus.
So how do you do that? One of the best ways is to ensure that the last chord of the pre-chorus moves strongly to the chorus, often in a dominant-tonic relationship. That means ending the pre-chorus on a V-chord and starting your chorus on a I-chord. That’s the dominant-tonic relationship.
But you’ll get a similarly strong moment if you end the pre-chorus on a IV-chord or even a ii-chord. Here are some examples in C major:
Last chord of Verse or pre-chorus | First chord of Chorus V|I G|C IV|I F|C ii|I Dm|C
The reason for ending your pre-chorus on V, IV or ii is that it sounds pleasantly incomplete. It leaves the audience feeling like they need to hear something stronger. That something stronger happens at the start of the chorus, often the I-chord.
Using Dominant Pedal Point
Here’s a neat trick that will intensify the feeling of the end of the pre-chorus needing the first chord of the chorus: use a dominant pedal.
A dominant pedal simply means that no matter what chords you choose for your pre-chorus, you place the dominant (i.e., the 5th note) in the bass and keep it there. As the chords change through the pre-chorus, that dominant note increases musical energy.
Play through the following progression. Then try playing it keeping the dominant note in the bass and listen to the difference:
F C Dm G |F C Dm G ||C
Click on the play button below. You’ll hear that the first 4 bars play each chord in normal root position, with the root of each chord as the lowest-sounding note. Then, the next 4 bars show the difference when you place the dominant note as the lowest note. I think you’ll hear the increase of musical anticipation — musical momentum.
No matter what chords you choose for your pre-chorus, the main objective of a pre-chorus is to make the chorus sound welcome. The best way to do that is to build musical energy. In this post we concentrated on building energy via the chord progression, but you can do something similar by making the music louder, thickening the instrumental texture, and/or moving the melody higher.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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