5 Tips for Writing a Verse-Only Song

You can spend a lot of time worrying about how to get a verse and a chorus to work well together, but don’t forget the other option: consider writing a song that doesn’t use a chorus at all.

Sometimes the melody for that kind of song will end with a kind of repeating refrain, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’“, and sometimes it’s just a verse with no chorus or refrain at all, like Amanda McBroom’s “The Rose“, made most famous by Bette Midler.

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But in any case, the verse-only song has a few characteristics that are vital to consider and remember:

  1. The chords you choose for a verse-only song need to be of the tonally strong variety. A tonally strong progression is one that clearly points to one chord as being the tonic chord… the one that represents your song’s key. Both “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and “The Rose” demonstrate this. “Beth“, by Peter Criss, Stan Penridge and Bob Ezrin, uses a long, verse-only form, and the chords in the middle of the tune move into relative minor. But it quickly returns to the key it begins in: C major.
  2. The melody typically starts low, moves higher, then finishes low. Most successful verse-only songs have the melody starting in the low-midrange of the singer’s voice, moving higher somewhere in the middle (or sometimes closer to the end, as in “The Times They Are A-Changin'”), and then ends by moving lower, giving the entire melody a nice sense of completion.
  3. Verse-only songs can accommodate after-completion modifications. In other words, if you find that your completed song seems to be lacking something (i.e., needs a more complete lyric, or simply needs to be longer), it’s relatively easy to add a bridge (after the second or third verse), or an instrumental solo.
  4. Adding altered chords for a final verse can be an effective change from the repetition of your melody. If you find that your song seems to crave something unique, it’s easy to find different chords that will sub in for the original ones. If you’re not sure how chord substitutions work, read this article: “How to Substitute One Chord for Another“. It’s an old article, but contains the information you’re probably looking for.
  5. Use instrumentation in order to add contrast to a verse-only song. One of the challenges of writing a verse-only song is the problem of a lack of contrast. Everything starts to sound the same when the melody and chords are either the same or very similar. One of the best ways to add a bit of contrast is to look at the instrumental approach you’re using. Use lyrics as your guide, and add a fuller instrumentation to verses that seem to be more emotional than others. “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, a song that uses a verse-refrain form, uses a gradually building instrumentation to great effect.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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