Writing the chorus part of a song is usually a very different process than writing the verse part. With choruses, you’re usually coming up with a little package of music — some chords, a backing rhythm, a catchy melodic bit and then some lyrics.
That musical package is what we call the chorus hook, and songs might live or die on the success of that hook.
The verse is usually something different. We don’t usually think of hooks when we think of verses. And that can make the verse part of songwriting hard. You might come up with a chord progression you like, but then trying to invent a melody that works with it can often be difficult.
The most common complaint I hear from songwriters is that their verses sound like aimless wandering. How do you write a verse melody that sounds interesting and supportive of the lyric, without sounding like a bunch of notes wandering around?
I’ve always believed that the best way to get a verse melody working is to try to imagine that melody, at least temporarily, without chords being involved. In other words, simply imagine the song melody.
Many songwriters have a fear of working this way, but you might find that you’re better at it than you think. The process is simple:
- Give yourself a note on the guitar or piano, and hum it.
- Sing a little fragment of melody, something you spontaneously come up with. (This part is the part that can surprise you… you’re more likely to come up with something that actually works than something that sounds like garbage.)
- Repeat that fragment. That gives you two phrases.
- Come up with a second fragment that seems to follow naturally. Now you’ve got three phrases, and you’ll want one more.
- See if the original fragment will work as a fourth fragment, even if you have to modify the ending of it a little to make it work.
That gives you a short verse in AABA form. You could try this method in a slightly different order: invent a fragment, come up with a second fragment right away, then try repeating the first fragment again. To finish, you simply come up with a new fragment that forms your fourth phrase: ABAC.
If you want a good example of what that might sound like, you’re probably hearing “Feliz Navidad” (José Feliciano) a lot these days. Its verse is in ABAC form.
Once you’ve got the melody, you’ll probably find that the chords won’t be so difficult. When we imagine melodies, we usually find ourselves locking into a chord progression that’s already forming in our mind, even if the specific chords aren’t obvious yet.
So pick up your guitar and use your musical instincts to come up with a progression that works. If your instincts aren’t doing it for you, try reading this article: “7 Quick Tips for Adding Chords to a Melody.”
And you can also give this blog post a try: “Choosing the Chords That Work With Your Melody.”
The main advantage to coming up with melodies first is that you’re concentrating on the part of the song that audiences can hum and enjoy. The melody is that part that will stick with them long after everything else about a song fades.
So by working on the melody first, you get a chance to shape something that can have a deep and lasting impact on your audience.