Piano and guitar

When Your Songs Don’t Fit the Verse-Chorus Format

Progressive rock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Most prog rock tunes are longer than the standard 3-4 minute length you expect with typical pop songwriting, and that alone will turn some listeners off.

Also, it’s not unusual for prog rock songs also to use complex chords and lyrics. In other words, most music that would be described as progressive rock requires the listener to do a lot more thinking and analyzing than what a radio single might require. And as I say, that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

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There’s another noticeable difference between a prog rock song and a standard pop song: its format. Many songs in the prog rock genre don’t use a standard verse-chorus format.

We tend to view most songs as being in some kind of verse-chorus format. We might notice that a song doesn’t bother with a chorus, using one of the several possible verse-only formats, or perhaps verse-bridge, but in any case, most songwriters start their songwriting process by at least knowing that the form of the song is somewhat important.

What really is important, however, is not that a song has verses and choruses, but more that the musical energy we perceive moves up and down. In fact, when it comes to whether a song works or not, that’s all that really matters.

I love looking at Chicago’s 1975 hit “Old Days” as a great example of this. When it starts, we assume that what we’re hearing is a verse, and that we’re eventually going to hear a chorus or a bridge.

But I like to hear it rather as a succession of sections that could be labeled as anything we want to call them. But in reality, it’s simpler than that: it’s a song with one distinct section following another distinct one.

  • Intro: 0’00”-0’17”: Instrumental
  • Section 1: 0’17”-0’32”: Harmonic progressions centered on the I-chord
  • Section 2: 0’32”-0’48”: Harmonic progressions centered on the dominant (V) chord
  • Section 3: 0’48”-1’04”: Harmonies moving to being centered on the vi-chord
  • Section 4: 1’04”-1:29″: Harmonies on vi, moving to dominant.

Because we have a tendency to hear everything in some sort of verse format, we might be tempted to hear this song as verse-chorus-bridge, but I think to do so kind of veils what’s actually going on here: a song that starts in major, moves to relative minor, and then to the dominant to prepare the return of section 1.

That kind of verse-chorus-bridge analysis wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, mind you. My point is that you can call those sections anything you’d like; what’s important is that each section has its own distinct mood — its own distinct flavour.

In your own songwriting, you might encounter an issue where you’ve been assembling your own songs from bits of other unfinished attempts, and then find yourself wondering which part is a verse, which part is a chorus, and so on.

But the more important issue with songwriting isn’t what to call each section, but to make sure that each section has its own particular musical energy and mood. As long as that’s happening, it doesn’t matter which part is the verse and which part is the chorus.

The up and down of musical energy is all that ever really matters, no matter how subtle those differences might be.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary EwerFollow Gary on Twitter.

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