Brian Wilson - Tony Asher

How a Song’s Chorus Makes Use of Musically Strong Elements

When you listen to a song just for entertainment, you’re not usually aware that parts of the song are musically ambiguous in some way, while other parts are clear and strong.

Let’s say, for example, that you start your song by writing a verse that uses this short progression: C-Bb-C-Bb-C-Bb…

There’s a kind of ambiguity associated with that progression. The key isn’t as clear as what we hear if we played C-G7. But that doesn’t matter to us, and in fact we usually like that kind of musical ambiguity.

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The fact is that most good songs move back and forth between bits that are strong and bits that are more ambiguous — what I like to call fragile.

In most songs, the strongest elements are found in the chorus or refrain. What does strong mean in this context? It usually means:

  1. The chord progressions are short and clearly point to a key. Listen to “God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson/Tony Asher) and note the ambiguous nature of the verse progressions (lots of inversions, and hard to clearly identify the key), and then how much more predictable the refrain becomes.
  2. The lyrics are clear and expressive. A typical chorus lyric doesn’t pose questions or make vague statements; it’s more likely that chorus lyrics will answer questions, or express clear emotions.
  3. The melody is short and hook-like, often using repeated patterns. That’s important because the chorus is the bit you want listeners to be able to easily hum and remember.

In most songs, everything is relative. So when you compare a verse to a chorus, the differences with regard to strong/fragile elements might only be slight. But slight differences are usually enough.

As I mentioned, this issue of strong versus fragile musical elements is not something people are usually aware of when they listen to music. But it’s important.

The sign that you haven’t put enough of a difference between sections with regard to strong/fragile elements is that everything starts to sound bland and uninteresting from a musical point of view. Your melodies may sound fine when you sing them to yourself, but if there’s no difference between how your verse melody works and how your chorus melody sounds (i.e., if they’re all sitting in the same basic range, with nothing much to distinguish them), you’ve got problems.

A chorus usually makes use of musically strong elements. So if you want to be sure you’ve dealt properly with this musical issue, start by examining your chorus. The lyrics should be emotional, the melody should be relatively high when compared to the verse, and the chord progressions should be clearly targeting a tonic chord.

From there, look back to the verse, and see if you’ve made the lyrics observational, and the melodies relatively low when compared to the chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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