Lately I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about musical momentum… that quality that keeps people listening to a song. Without it, songs would just be one nice sound following another nice sound, and though it may seem strange to say, that’s not enough to keep people listening.
There’s a sense of expectation that keeps people listening to a song. For example, when we hear a verse melody moving higher and higher, we instinctively want to hear where it ends up. That keeps us listening.
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When we hear a chord progression start on a I-chord, then move away from that tonic chord, we expect to hear the progression eventually move back to the I-chord in the chorus. That’s another way good songwriters might keep us listening.
What about lyrics? How do songwriters use lyrics to create that important sense of expectation?
Often people will say that verses should pose questions that get answered in the chorus. But rarely does this happen in a literal sense. Songs would be pretty boring if every one of them used verse lyrics that ask questions, followed by chorus lyrics that answer them.
But good verse lyrics do several things that give us the same feeling as if questions were being posed. Here are some examples:
1. Emotional Ambiguity
A good verse lyric describes a situation without being overly clear what your emotional response (as the songwriter) might be. Verses are good at introducing characters, laying out the scene, etc., but shouldn’t get overly specific about emotions.
A good example is Adele’s “Someone Like You”, which uses the verse to set the scene, but as you can see, doesn’t get overly weepy:
I heard that you’re settled down
That you found a girl and you’re married now
I heard that your dreams came true
Guess she gave you things I didn’t give to you
The chorus is where she makes feelings clearer. It’s not so much that she really misses that relationship; it’s more that she doesn’t want to become a complete nothing to this previous love (“Don’t forget me, I beg…”)
2. Powerful Imagery
A good verse lyric uses imagery to describe people and circumstances, but by using metaphors and other poetic devices. By using metaphors, we find ourselves comparing one situation (the metaphorical one) to another (the real one), and that sets things up for an emotional outpouring in the chorus.
Eric Church’s “Record Year” (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde) is a good example of what I’m talking about. He uses the metaphor of a record representing is day-to-day life (“Keeping this turntable spinnin’“), and even though his emotions are clear in the verse, it’s all done in an understated way.
It’s not until the chorus that things heat up (“I’m either gonna get over you/ Or I’m gonna blow out my ears.”) We really get the metaphor, and it deepens our emotional response.
A good verse lyric gives us reasons why the chorus makes us feel the way it does. There’s nothing worse than a verse that starts by describing how you feel, while giving no backstory to base those emotions on.
In that way, the verse and chorus are important partners, each with its own set of responsibilities.
If you take a look at practically any lyric that works, you’ll notice that the best ones offer a very clear up-and-down of emotion through the length of the song, and that’s what keeps us riveted, and coming back.
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