Learn all the important secrets of writing a song using the chords-first process. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you the best way forward.
Some songs will use the same chord progression for the verse and the chorus: “With Or Without You” (U2), or “Believer” (Imagine Dragons), for example. Songs that use the same progression throughout work best if the progression is tonally strong.
That means that the progression clearly and unambiguously points to one chord as being the tonic — the one representing the key of the song. “With Or Without You” is in D major, and the progression leaves nothing in doubt:
D A Bm G
But what about when you choose a different progression for your verse and your chorus? What are the important characteristics of a progression that make it more likely to work in a verse? What is it about a chorus progression that makes it sound like it belongs in a chorus?
If your verse and chorus progressions differ, here are some important aspects to remember:
1. A verse progression seeks out the tonic chord.
Many verse progressions will start somewhere other than the tonic chord, and then sound as though they’re “looking for” the tonic chord — the chord that eventually defines the chorus. For example, let’s say that your song’s chorus is in C major. A verse progression like the following might work well:
Am F G Em | Am F Dm Em |Am F G Em |F G Am G
You can hear toward the end of the progression that it’s looking for the C major chord that will define the key of the chorus: C major:
C G Am F…
2. A chorus progression reinforces the tonic chord.
While a verse sounds like it’s purposely seeking out that tonic chord, the chorus progression spends most of its time establishing and reinforcing that tonic chord. So chorus progressions aren’t usually ambiguous in any way. They’re clear and obvious about the key. A good example of a nice, strong chorus chord progression is “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift/Shellback):
F Dm Gm Bb…
3. Chorus progressions tend to be shorter than verse progressions.
A chorus progression shares an important characteristic with a song’s hook: it needs to be short, strong, memorable and easy to figure out. That’s what a chorus progression does as well. It’s short because one of its main tasks is to reinforce the key. The longer a progression is, the more likely it is to acquire a wandering, meandering quality. That’s fine for a verse, but less fine for a chorus.
4. A verse helps support the subtle shadings of a verse’s story.
In a verse, your lyric is most likely going to describe a situation or a person, with that story going through various moods and phases. Because of that, chords will venture off into different directions before coming back to the chorus’ key.
So as listeners, we like when the verse chords move around and go on a bit of a journey, as long as that journey doesn’t get too weird or distracting. So feel free to use lots of inversions (slash chords), modal mixtures, altered chords, and other kinds of interesting harmonic inflections in your verse. But by the 1-minute mark, you should be settled into the chorus, with that good, strong, short progression that makes everything easier to figure out.
Songs that use the same progression throughout will work fine, and no one will even know that you’ve done that. Just remember: if you plan to use the same progression throughout your entire song, let that progression have the characteristics of a good chorus progression: short, and tonally strong.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
If all you need are tons of progressions to try out, you need “Essential Chord Progressions” and “More Essential Chord Progressions.” They’re both part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle”