Songwriter with guitar

Giving Chorus Lyrics the Emotional Boost They Need

Sometimes you’ll hear a songwriter criticize their lyrics, saying that the chorus “falls flat.” That kind of criticism usually means that the chorus lyrics aren’t generating the kind of emotional response from the listener they were hoping for.

You’ll notice that I say “generating”, because that’s exactly what a good chorus lyric does. It doesn’t so much express emotions; the good songs create emotions in the listener.

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How emotional a chorus needs to be has to do with the kind of verse lyric that precedes it. Verses need to set the scene and place the listener in a circumstance or situation. Sometimes a verse lyric will simply tell a story, but in any case, the verse lyric limits its emotional involvement so as to not upstage the chorus.

If you find yourself feeling that your chorus lyric is “falling flat”, try reading your verse and chorus lyrics aloud, as if you were reading poetry. You should notice that the chorus lyric shows a distinctive increase in the kinds of words that generate emotions.

Sometimes these words are simply exclamations: “Oh”, “Woah”… that sort of thing. But a good chorus lyric is going to need to give more than that, or course, to be effective. Sometimes, if the verse has done its job of setting the scene well, the chorus lyric doesn’t need a large dose of emotion. The difference in emotional content simply needs to be noticeable.

A good relatively recent example of a song that models this kind of relationship between verse and chorus lyrics is Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”. The verse tells a story:

Now and then I think of when we were together
Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
Told myself that you were right for me
But felt so lonely in your company
But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember…

When you read those words, even though you know he’s describing something sad or at least emotionally down, the words he chooses are purposely low-key when it comes to emotional content.

Now take a look at the kinds of words and phrases he chooses for the chorus:

But you didn’t have to cut me off
Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
And I don’t even need your love
But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough…

As you can see, the words are purposely chosen to heighten the emotional engagement of the listener. “Cut me off…”, “…we were nothing…”, “I don’t even need your love…” — these are all ways to grab an audience’s attention and make them feel something more powerfully.

Melody and Lyric

Don’t forget that no one song element works in isolation from others. So in addition to pumping up the emotional content of the chorus lyric, a chorus may still lack punch if you don’t do a few other things, including:

  1. making the instrumentation of the chorus louder and fuller.
  2. raising the basic range of the chorus melody.
  3. using backing vocals in the chorus.

No matter what you do for a song chorus, however, it all starts with the lyric, and making sure that you’ve made that very important transition from observational to emotional. Without that, your chorus is always going to lack the emotional punch that makes a connection to your audience.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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