Five “Secrets” To A Great Chorus

I actually read an article elsewhere on the web which had a similar theme to this, so I decided to write my own.  No plagiarism here :-), just some of my ideas on what makes a great chorus.

1. The Lyrical Sum of the Song

Lyrically, the chorus of a song is its focal point, its summation, a kind of wrap-up of what the song is about.  In pop and country/pop especially, the chorus is everything.  You’ll notice that many songs in these genres have choruses that are longer than the verses, and sometimes they are inserted at the beginning of the song just to let you know that this is what the song is all about!

The chorus should be the very centre of the song.  Make it stand out musically and lyrically (contrast) to the rest of the song.  Think about it as being the sun, with the verses representing the planets spinning around it.  Hmmm…I must be a songwriter…

2.  The Chorus is the Part They Remember!

When you’re writing a chorus, you’ll want to pay special attention to its memorability.  Often, the chorus contains the title of the song, and in many cases the title is repeated a number of times.  Often, the title is at the very beginning or end of a chorus which certainly helps people to remember it.  And if there’s a melodic hook, the chorus is where you’ll often find it.  How many times has someone had to sing a song to you all the way to the chorus before you suddenly recognize it?  Think about that!

3. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I talk about repetition a lot in this blog because it’s a critical point.  The number of times you repeat a melodic phrase or a lyrical one can make or break a song.  If it’s too much, it gets boring, if it’s not enough, it’s meandering.  And how many times you repeat a chorus is also important.  Having the chorus after the verses is obvious, but how many times should you repeat it at the end?  The chorus is one of those places where you can effectively use repetition to drive the point of the song home.  Let me repeat:  the chorus is one of those places where you can…you get my drift 🙂

4.  But The Chorus Doesn’t Have To Repeat Itself!

If you’ve never heard of it, get to know the term “progressive chorus”.  For the most part, a progressive chorus is one that reflects the verse before it…for instance if you are going from past to present to future in your verse lyrics, the chorus might also reflect this tense change with different wording:  “was”, to “is”, to “will be”.  And sometimes to carry a song lyric along, the chorus needs to “update”, if you will, according to whatever is happening in your lyric.  This can be a very effective tool in writing a great song lyric.

5.  Sometimes There Is No Chorus

Not every song requires a chorus.  In fact, a lot of song have simply what is considered a “refrain”;  a line or a phrase that gets repeated at the end of each verse.  A good example of that is “The Times They Are A Changin'” – an old Bob Dylan song.  And guess what?  The refrain is the title of the song!  That’s because it is repeated, and because it is the whole point of the song, so it does the job of a chorus without actually being one.  If you’re more of a folk songwriter, you already know this.  Folk is one of the oldest song forms, with only verses:  A, A, A, A.

And those are my five “secrets”.  Not secrets at all, of course, but they might make you think more about how to construct a chorus in future.

A little background when it comes to choruses for those of you young punks :-).  Up until only a few years ago, songs were discovered mainly on the radio.  In some cases the DJ would either introduce the song and/or artist before or after it was played.   But sometimes you would catch a song in the middle and not hear the introduction, or songs played back-to-back so they weren’t identified.  If you really liked a song, it became particularly frustrating if you didn’t know its name or the artist’s name.  Songwriters paid a lot of attention to this, which is why popular songs often had a lot of repetition especially in the chorus, or at the very least, something very memorable that could be identified by listeners when they were going to a record shop to try and find a song, like a powerful melodic hook.

The digital era has made it a lot easier to identify songs as you’re hearing them, but the old idea of a hook and a powerful chorus is still relevant.  If your plan is to pitch your songs, or at the very least, write memorable ones, then spend a lot of time working on the chorus, if there is one.

One last point:  you probably already know that the dictionary also defines a chorus as a “group” of singers.  So why not think of your song chorus in terms of what it sounds like when a group is singing together, and the verses as the soloists?  Just another way to think of it 🙂


The Magic of Melody

There is a lot of music out there that is not as melody-based, one extreme being rap, where elements such as rhythm, lyrics and production are relied upon to attract the listener. But in my case, I’ve always been attracted to a song with a powerful melody. Classical music was always playing in the house when I was growing up, and I believe that exposure to this kind of music gave me an ear and a preference for melodic songs.

So what makes a great melody? I think it’s a relative thing, but for me a great melody is either one that can exist beautifully without any accompaniment, or dances in a unique way over top of a great chord progression.
Although it’s difficult to actually teach how to write a great melody, there are some things you can keep in mind in order to improve them.

One very common problem I find with melodies is that they stay very close to the “root” note of the chord. Let’s take a little theory lesson…if you’ve already studied theory, you don’t need this next section…but read through it anyway!

Chords are made up of three or more notes…I won’t go into much depth here, but let’s take a look at the “C” chord as an example:

A major “C” chord has three notes…C (called the ‘root’), E (called the ‘3rd’ because it’s three notes up from ‘C’ in the C major scale), and G (called the ‘5th’ because it’s five notes up from ‘C’). So we have three notes…C (root), E (3rd), G (5th). Here’s a simple graphic:

Underneath are the notes of each string (the 6th or E string is not played, hence the “x”). You’ll notice that the only notes contained in the chord of C are as I described above…C, E, G.

Play each of those strings alone and hum each note as you pluck’ll find that you are probably “attracted” to one of those notes more than the others…the root note of “C” may be the one that draws your ear. Chances are that you will almost unconsciously create your melody with that note in it more than any others. If your melodies feel hum-drum, this may be the reason. Now try strumming it and at the same time focus on singing notes that are not within that chord. Play with it a bit, until you get a sense of just how interesting your melody can get…every time you write your melodies, no matter if you write lyrics first or whether you already have the chord progressions, just being conscious of not repeating the same note too often can help your writing.

Another common problem I hear in melodies is that they move all over the place, almost the opposite to the problem above. This is where simplicity is the order of the day. Here is an exercise that might help you overcome the temptation to write complicated melodies…try coming up with a chord progression of three or four chords and then continue playing those three or four chords in repetition. As an example, try playing D, Bm, A, and G. Over top of that progression, sing one note that sounds like it fits pretty much all of those chords. Just one note. You can hum it continuously, or you can break it up by humming it in a rhythmic fashion, but only one note. Notice how the chord changes actually change the feeling of that note…it’s a subtle thing but very effective.

Very often, the rhythm of the melody is as important as the notes in it. As a guitar teacher, I’ve noticed that one of the hardest things for some of my students to do is to maintain a rhythm on the guitar while singing a melody that is syncopated. Syncopation is a rhythm that exists just before or just after the meter count. The dictionary defines syncopate as: “…change a regular rhythm by beginning a note on an unaccented beat and holding it into an accented one or beginning it midway through a beat and continuing it midway into the next one.” Phew! Does this feel like math? Rarely are melodies sung continuously on the beat…songs would sound awfully funny if every note was sung on the beat. As an example of syncopation, take for example, Paul Simon‘s song “Me & Julio”. I’ve placed the words underneath the meter of the music to show you how it would look:

.Me and….Ju-…..lio……

Notice how many of the words fall in between the beats. The word ‘Me’, ‘school’ and ‘yard’ are the only words that actually fall on the beat, on one of the numbers. Melodies are usually a combination of both. How do your melodies measure up? Get a metronome and just sing one of your melodies over top of it…notice where you place the notes. Do they sit too much on the beat, or do they always fall in between?

Melody and rhythm, are the simplest elements when it comes to writing a song, but a song is only as strong as it’s weakest part. Of course, listening to strong melody-based music, anything written by the Beatles, for example, will give you a new respect for the magic of melody.


Are You A Good Listener?

We’re going to listen with a critical ear to the production and instruments in a recorded song.  Even if you are not a musician, or not familiar with various instruments used in music production, being a good listener and recognizing the role each instrument plays in a song will ALWAYS give you an advantage when you are recording your songs or performing them with other people.

Let’s start with the basics of listening to a recorded song by picking a song by a band or artist that you like.  Try to find a song that has a full band;  quite often the instruments and the players are listed on each cut of a CD.  The more instruments, the better!

One of the most obvious, up front elements of a recorded song is the drum part or percussion.  If the song you’re listening to has drums, it’s important to note that they are what drives the song.  That may seem obvious, but did you know that the drum part is often recorded first?  The reason for this is that the rest of the instruments need to follow the drums, and not the other way around.  So the drums are played at the agreed to tempo and every instrument recorded after has to maintain that same tempo as accurately as possible.

A standard drum set: Ride cymbal Floor tom Tom...
Image via Wikipedia

So let’s discuss the parts of a drum kit first.  The kick or bass drum (4) is the deep, heavy beat;  the big drum that the drummer hits with a foot pedal.  It is often hit less frequently than the other parts.  The snare (5) has a higher pitch and is hit with a drum stick, as are the rest of the drum parts when they are played.  The toms (3) are sonically somewhere between the snare sound and the kick or bass drum.  They are usually played as part of a “fill”, when the drummer comes away from the snare to roll on the toms at the end of phrases or song parts.  Then there are the cymbals.  Crash cymbals (1) are also used for emphasis, sometimes at the beginning or end of a phrase, or emphasizing the chorus.  They often referred to as the “ride” when they keep time during a chorus, for instance, and the hi-hats (6) are similarly used.

When you’re listening to the song you’ve chosen, try to focus only on the drums for the entire track.  Listen to what they do and when they do it.  Do they start at the beginning, or come in a little later in the intro?  What’s the difference in the way they are played in the verses and then the chorus?  If there is a bridge in the song, do they do something different?  Pay attention to when they come in and when they pause and all of the flourishes throughout the song.  When do you hear the toms, if at all?  When do you hear the cymbals?  Listen through a couple of times and make sure you are listening to ONLY the drums.

Now let’s focus on the bass.  The bass guitar is closely associated with the drums and often recorded at the same time or just after the drums are.  The drummer and bassist have a very close relationship and you’ll notice if you’ve ever seen a band play live, the bass player is often looking for signals or exchanging glances with the drummer as they move through the chord changes and fills.  The bass is often the hardest instrument to hear because of its low pitch.  Sometimes it plays very simple lines with long notes, and other times it might be almost rhythmic.  Listen to the song you’ve chosen again, but only to the bass this time.   Sometimes when I’m teaching my guitar students how to play by ear, I put on a song and get them to listen for the bass part, because that often determines what chord is being played by the guitar.  So I know how difficult it is to identify.  Occasionally you might confuse the sound of the bass with the low string of a guitar, but when you can zero in on the bass, listen through the whole song and pay attention to what it does.  It will certainly change notes as the chords change, but does it change patterns at different times?  Can you hear how it matches up sometimes with the rhythm of the kick on the drum kit?  Listen through enough times that you are completely focused in on only the bass.

The recording you are listening to might have piano, or “keys’ as they are often referred to.  They tend to stand out from the stringed instruments, even though they also have “strings”, but quite often they are electric pianos or keyboards with different sounds.  The keyboard might be playing chords, or it might also have little melody parts or fills throughout the song.  Listen to what the keyboard is doing and how it interacts with the rest of the instruments.

Guitars can be a challenge to listen to as well.  There may be acoustic guitar and/or electric, and often there are both and maybe even more than one of each!  Being able to distinguish how many guitars you hear is important and probably the greatest challenge.  Often if there are two or more guitars, they are doing different things, but because they sound similar, it is hard for the ear to separate them at first.  The electric guitar often does a solo or lead part somewhere in the song.  This gives it some distinction because it’s playing notes and melodies, and not chords.

So focus in now on what the guitars (if there are any) are doing in the song.  Is there just one guitar playing chords?  Can you hear the difference between the electric guitar and the acoustic, assuming there are both?  How do they interact with each other?  Note that it is very rare, even if there are two acoustic guitars, for them to be playing the same thing.  If you are a guitar player and you are jamming with others, quite often you’ll all be playing the same chords and progressions, but that rarely happens in recorded music because what would be the point of doing the same thing twice?  So what the guitar players might choose to do is to play in one key on one guitar, and use a capo or barre chords to play somewhere else on the neck with the second guitar.  Paul Simon used to have one guitar tuned normally, and another with the strings tuned an octave higher, so he had a very full acoustic guitar sound in his recordings.

There may be other instruments in the song you’re listening to.  What are they?  Extra percussion?  Strings, like violins, or maybe there are electronic drums or beats, or sounds that you can’t identify right away.  Quite often, recordings will have layers and layers of sounds, and others might be considered quite “sparse” in their instrumentation.

Learning to listen to other instruments and how they work together will be an important tool for you when you are thinking about what you might include in a recording of your own song.  Sometimes when you’re thinking about your song, you might “hear” something that you’d like and being able to identify and articulate what that is will be a big help when you finally get in the studio.

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Songwriting Without An Instrument

Recently someone commented on one of my blogs that they would like to know how to write a song without an instrument.  You would think that because there is music involved, it would be next to impossible to write a song without any musical “ability”. If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true! Most guitar teachers can tell you that.

The Cmaj chord in guitar, with bass in G
Image via Wikipedia

Even if we are not singers, we can all hum.  And if you’ve been around music all of your life, as most of us have, you’ve probably found yourself humming along or singing along with your favourite songs.  If you already have some lyrics written, free yourself from your musical inhibitions by “singing” them in some sort of way that gives you a feel for the meter (rhythm) of them.  Don’t worry whether or not it is GOOD, just do it!  See if you can’t find some kind of melody that matches the meter and then just keep experimenting.  You might find that you “hear” certain melodies with certain lines and not with others.  That could mean that you just haven’t found it yet, or it could mean that the lines with no melodies just aren’t working.  So keep working at it, change the lines or mess around with another melody…just keep trying.  The more you liberate yourself from feeling like you CAN’T do it, the less inhibited you will become.

If you are overwhelmed with the idea of learning an instrument, the fact is that many of us assume that we are supposed to become some kind of virtuoso on it which, as a guitar teacher, I can tell you is not true!  Most people learn an adequate number of chords within a few weeks or months, for instance, to be able to play a good selection of songs that they like.  The fact is that many songs are rather simple in their chord progressions (a chord progression is a series of chords), and so they can be learned fairly easily.  So you can probably learn enough chords in a couple of months to start trying to match them to your lyrics.


As a songwriter, you don’t have to be a master of an instrument to adequately come up with some chords to your song.  So what I am advocating first is that you could pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and fool around with it by ear so that you can familiarize yourself with finding little melodies on it.  It doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking, just a simple way of getting to know the instrument so that you can feel comfortable with it.  Then if you feel ready, you can find some resources to show you how to play some simple chords, and then take it from there.

Your other option is to find someone who CAN play, and who can help you find chords and melodies.  This might take some doing, but then again, there could be someone in your own backyard or circle of friends who already plays and might be willing to experiment with your lyrics.  You can either give the lyrics entirely up to them, or you can sit with them and try to come up with some ideas together.

A third option would be to invest in some kind of software like Band-In-A-Box which is a clever computer software program that you can create backing tracks (music) to your melodies or lyrics with little effort.  You can play with chords without knowing which chords go together, and you can pick styles and instruments, again, without knowing much about them, and still come up with a decent sounding “band” to sing your songs along with.

I was at a songwriting retreat once where one of the participants in my little group didn’t play an instrument at all.  Somehow she had found someone to come up with chords to her melodies, so when it was her turn to perform one of her songs, she just gave the chords to someone who could play guitar and she sang along with him.  I admired her for her dedication to songwriting even though she had never learned an instrument.  And you don’t have to be limited either!

Now I know that some of you out there reading this blog might have suggestions of your own, so if you do, please add them below!  Comments and replies always welcome :-).


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The Use of Contrast in Songwriting

Contrast, as defined in the dictionary, is: To set in opposition in order to show or emphasize differences. Black and white are two contrasting “shades” (they’re not colours!) and can be used as a visual way to describe contrast in songwriting.

Black and White "Model" Cupcakes
Image by clevercupcakes via Flickr

When you’re first writing a song (and I ALWAYS emphasize this!), you are not thinking about technique or creating dynamics, tension or contrast…you are simply expressing something in its raw form. Many songwriters never get beyond this raw state, never develop their writing or learn to polish their songs, and the lack of contrast is often a result. If absolutely everything in a room was white, how boring would that be? This is what songwriters who are just starting out don’t necessarily recognize in their own songwriting.

So what exactly IS contrast in songwriting? Well, it can be achieved in different ways. If your song has verses and a chorus, contrast may be created between those song parts. For example, the verses might have a melody in a lower range, and the chorus in a higher range. Another way to achieve contrast would be a different chord progression in the chorus as compared to the verse. It can be a subtle as starting the chorus with a different chord than the verses start with. Contrast doesn’t have to be “in your face”, it simply creates a feeling of freshness between the parts of a song. A bridge can be a really effective contrast. You’ve set your listener up, starting them off with a verse and chorus, another verse and chorus, and now you want to give them a breather, so you create a bridge.

So, melody and chord progressions can be used to create contrast, what about lyrics?  The most subtle lyrical contrast would be in terms of the subject by changing the point of view or creating a different idea (but not too different!) between two parts of a song.  A very simple example would be where the verses are in the first and second person (I, me, my and you), and the chorus being in the third person (she, he, they).

But a broader and more effective contrast would be to actually change the form of the song by changing the rhyme scheme or the length of lines and the meter.  You see this happening most of the time between a verse and a chorus;  the verse has its own rhyme scheme and meter and the chorus changes to another set.

Contrast can also be created in the production of the song where the instrumentation changes between different parts.  This has less to do with the songwriting, but if your song is missing some contrast or the contrast is not strong enough, adding or changing instruments in the production and recording phase can enhance the parts so they stand out a little more separately from each other.  What often happens with drums in a chorus, for instance, is that the rhythm stays more or less the same, but cymbals (or what they call a “ride”) are added.  Drums also accent a coming change when they do small fills just beforehand.

Drums are only one example of the use of contrast in production, other instruments like strings can also be effective in signifying a different part of a song.  But for the most part, you want to be able to create contrast in the writing itself so you don’t have to rely on production to do it for you.

Contrast is something that be the difference between your audience being continuously drawn into a song and putting them to sleep! Listen to one of your favourite songs and see if you can spot what they do to create contrast. And then listen to one of your own songs to determine if you are creating enough contrast to keep it interesting!


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