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 🙂


Hit Songwriting Secrets (not!)

I spend a lot of time perusing the internet for other songwriting news, tips, ideas, etc., in part for my own curiosity, and also because of the articles I write for Muse’s Muse and those I post here.

American country musician Taylor Swift perform...
American country musician Taylor Swift performing live. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One phrase that always makes me laugh is “songwriting secrets”…whether they are pitching a book or some kind of one-on-one session with you as a songwriter, or maybe they’re just trying to get you to sign up to their website so that they have your email address so they can spam with you with stuff later on;  the idea that there are secrets to songwriting that no one else knows is FALSE!

Why?  Because the songs that are successful are not secrets at all!  They are out there on the radio, on iTunes, on videos and CDs for you to listen to, analyze, reverse engineer and learn from.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, you have literally hundreds of thousands of hit songs out there at your disposal to teach you, they are not secret at all.

So how do you learn from them?  This is the the real “secret”.  What is it about a song that makes it successful?  Studying different hit songs, what they are comprised of and how every part works together, you will get a better sense of what makes it successful.

So let’s get to the songwriting first.  Some will tell you that there’s a secret “formula” to hit songwriting…for instance, always have a particular number of verses, always keep the intro short, always write in the first person, come up with a title first…etc., etc.  Don’t “always” do anything;  each song has its own personality and if you’ve already written a few of them, you know what I mean.  Do you use the same chords every time?  The same form or subject matter?  Of course not.  The only formula you need is to make it good, and “good” is a very subjective thing.  If you listen to the top ten pop hits right now on Billboard, (or country, or any other chart for that matter) you’ll discover a few things.

They don’t necessarily conform to any one key or song form (although as far as subject matter, when I checked Billboard for the most recent top 10 pop hits they were pretty much all about love/lust or breakups/relationships!), but they do use certain techniques to keep the listener hanging on.  Sometimes those elements are simply the recording and production itself, sometimes they are the way the verses and chorus (and/or pre-chorus) relate to each other, sometimes the lyrics and/or music are really catchy.  And often it’s simply the artist or band that has such a huge following, almost anything they do will become a hit.  If your ambition is to write a hit song, then your job is to study what’s out there and come up with something better!   Easier said than done, I know.

But lets back off the actually writing for a bit and consider what else makes a song a hit.  First of all, many songs that you hear are not necessarily “great”, but they make it to the charts because of the artist or band, as I mentioned earlier.  If these artists and bands don’t write their own material, who does?  A lot of them get their songs from their record label, who may have their own writers or have a publishing branch.  Quite often, the same circle of songwriters write a lot of the songs you hear…particularly in country and pop.   You can find out yourself by checking out the BMI or ASCAP records (or whichever performing rights organization exists in your country).  These P.R.O.’s have search able records online, so there’s no secret there either.

So, okay, a lot of it is who you know, in which case, part of your job as a potential hit songwriter, after you’ve come up with some great songs, is getting to know people.   Go to music centres like Nashville or Los Angeles or New York, research publishers who might be interested in your style of writing.  Join organizations that can help you like N.S.A.I. or songwriting associations that give workshops in all areas of the craft and business.  Be prepared to keep learning, learning, learning.  Hang on to your day job and save money for these ventures.  When you meet people who can help you, be polite, don’t shove your CD in their pocket, ASK first.

You also need to be patient.  I met a guy once who wrote his first ten songs and immediately went to Nashville to pitch them.  He was so sure that’s all he had to do…but when he got there he learned pretty quickly that he had spent nowhere near enough time on the writing part before he did the pitching part.  It was a huge reality check. That’s a true story. So remember to use your head and do everything in the right order!

The recent stories about Taylor Swift’s success are interesting because on her earlier releases she co-wrote a lot of material,  but on her most recent release “Speak Now” she wrote every single song herself.  She’s young and she’s smart, getting the experience she needed under her belt first by co-writing.  Co-writing is a “given” in the pro songwriting community…a lot of the songs you hear are written by more than one person, so you should consider doing that yourself too.  Chances are that if you get anywhere near working for a record label, you’ll be thrown into situations where you’ll have to write with someone you don’t know.  And if you’re a singer/songwriter and hoping to make it as an artist, you might take a cue from Taylor.  Don’t assume you know everything…you don’t!

There are no secrets to hit songwriting any more than there are secrets to any kind of success.  It comes down to the same things, whether you want to be a great chef, a successful financier or a best-selling author:  hard work, determination, patience, some talent and a little luck.  Shhhh…don’t tell anybody! 🙂


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