Bob Marley

Solidifying Chorus Rhythms to Help the Chorus Hook

Try this little experiment the next time you’re listening to music on the radio. Put your radio in an automatic scan mode, where it moves through the dial, stopping on radio stations as it finds them, and then plays 7 or 8 seconds before moving on.

As it stops at each new station (and assuming it’s playing a song at that moment), see how long it takes you to identify the genre of the song. I’m willing to bet that if you do a lot of listening to music, you’ll find you’ve got the ability to identify the genre within 2 or 3 seconds, often less.

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That’s an example of your musical mind attempting to isolate the differences between songs, and it’s the differences that help define genre.

When you listen to music this way (i.e., trying to find the differences between songs), you’re probably listening the way anyone listens, whether they’re a musician or not. But if you’re a student of songwriting, you typically listen in a different way: identifying principles that apply to good songs, no matter what genre they display.

When you listen to find the similarities between songs, that’s when you start to hear songwriting principles in play. One of the most important principles has to do with the rhythms of the verse melody compared to those of the chorus melody.

The principle you hear demonstrated in practically all songs regardless of genre is this one: melodic rhythms in the verse are usually more complex and quicker than the melodic rhythms in the chorus.

Another way of saying this is: the verse rhythms often sound like the way we say words in a conversation, while the chorus rhythms lock in to a kind of hooky pattern that feels powerful and catchy.

In other words, when you solidify and simplify chorus rhythms, it helps the chorus hook. And you’ll hear this rhythmic difference no matter what genre and no matter what era:

  • “Lollipop” (The Chordettes) 1958 – Beverly Ross, Julius Dixson: Pop/doo wop
  • “Penny Lane” (The Beatles) 1967 – Lennon & McCartney: Pop
  • “I’m Just Me” (Charlie Pride) 1971 – Glenn Martin – Country
  • “Smoke On the Water” (Deep Purple) 1971Hard rock/Heavy metal
  • “One Love” (Bob Marley) 1977 –  Bob Marley/Curtis Mayfield: Reggae
  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana) 1991 – Kurt Cobain/Krist Novoselic/Dave Grohl: Grunge/Alternative
  • “Levitating” (Dua Lipa feat. DaBaby) 2018 – Dua Lipa, DaBaby et al: Electro-disco/nu-disco/pop-funk

Give those songs a listen and you’ll see what I mean. The verses all use melodic rhythms that allow the words to come across as being conversational and descriptive. Once the chorus appears, you’ll hear the rhythms simplify and solidify, becoming repetitious and hooky.

It turns out that no matter what genre you’re writing in, that difference between verse and chorus is a crucial one.

And if you’re finding that your songs seem to be losing musical energy in the chorus, you often only need to take a look at the rhythms you’ve used in the chorus. If they haven’t solidified and become patterned and repetitious, you’ve likely identified the cause of the problem.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
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  1. Gary I have been a follower for years and I am forever impressed with your sharing and caring for others in the amount of knowledge and information you impart to them. Many thanks. Gordon

  2. Hey gary! Can I ask you a question? Can you please explain to me why lyrics and chords are more popular or better than score?

        • I’ve always been in favour of learning musical notation (writing a score) because it allows the writer to more accurately communicate their musical ideas to others. In reality, there have been many great songwriters that don’t read or write notation, and have written wonderful songs by simply notating the chords and lyrics, and leaving it up to others to be able to play what they’ve come up with.

          It’s not a question of which is better, it’s more a case of whatever you feel comfortable with, and the genre you write in. If you are writing a song like “That’ll Be the Day” (Buddy Holly), or most of the pop songs you hear these days, then writing a score is probably a step that’s not very necessary. But if you’re a band like “Chicago”, writing out the brass lines for “25 or 6 to 4” requires a musical score, and then people who can read it. It’s a lot easier (and quicker) with notation than doing all that by ear.


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