In a more recent article “Don’t Bore Us, Get To the Chorus“, we discussed the obvious importance of that part of a song. But while the chorus might be considered the “sexiest” or most pivotal part of the song…the verse is what really sets the chorus up to succeed. Behind every successful chorus is a strong verse 🙂
So it’s important to understand that the verse plays as crucial a role as the chorus, and that you need to pay a lot of attention to whether or not your verses are doing their job. If the chorus is the summation, the peak, if you will, of the song, the verses are the storytellers that help to make the chorus make sense. And when I say story, I don’t necessarily mean “once upon a time”. This is something that confuses a lot of people at first, because not all songs are little 3 minute stories in the traditional sense of the word. However, all songs need a beginning, a middle and an end. When you look at your verses from a lyrical standpoint, sometimes it’s a good idea to give a one-line summation of each one, just to see how they are adding up within the context of the song.
For instance, the first verse might be “I met him (her)”, the second “we had a great time” the third “something went wrong”. That’s just a very basic story line, but you get the idea. You can examine other songs that way to see how they work. I took a look at a couple of more recent pop/rock hits, for no particular reason and with no bias toward any, other than the fact that my guitar students have wanted to learn them. One of those was “Bubbly”, by Colbie Caillat. Now I wouldn’t exactly call the lyrics of that song brilliant or inspired, but they are kinda cute.
Bubbly is basically just a love/lust song, describing how he gives her “tinglies in a silly place” :-). So how do the verses stand up to the story test? The first verse starts with “I’ve been awake for awhile now”. The second describes being in bed and “the rain is falling on my window pane”. And the third verse begins with “I’ve been asleep for awhile now”. The rest of the song more or less describes how he makes her feel, especially the chorus. But the verses do meet the criteria of creating a beginning, a middle and an end. Waking up, fooling around, going back to sleep :-).
Another song is “Hey There Delilah” by the Plain White T’s. This song is almost written in the form of a letter, the first verse being a kind of “hey, how are you and how’s it going?”. “Hey there Delilah, what’s it like in New York City?”. The next verse is expressing the thought that one of these days things won’t be so hard and we’ll have a better life together. The last verse more or less says take care of yourself…something you might end a letter with. The chorus, interestingly, is just one line “Oh, it’s what you do to me.” repeated over and over…the melody is what makes that chorus stand out. It’s beautiful. So in this song, similarly to “Bubbly”, the verses are telling the story, the chorus is simply expressing or describing a feeling.
The third song I’ll look at is Taylor Swift‘s “Teardrops On My Guitar”. Again, this is a love song…this one about unrequited love. It sets up the story with the first line “Drew looks at me, I fake a smile so he won’t see”, and goes on to lament the fact that Drew has somebody else, but the singer is still pining for him. There’s continuity with the first line of the second verse, “Drew talks to me, I laugh because it’s so damn funny”. And the third verse begins “Drew walks by me, can he tell that I can’t breathe?”. In this particular song, the bridge carries on the story “So I drive home alone…”, and at the very end of the song, the last line is a repeat of the first line “Drew looks at me, I fake a smile so he won’t see”. This is a little songwriting trick that I’ve used myself before. I call it the 360, because the effect is to create a feeling of coming back to the beginning again, coming full circle. In a song like this about unrequited love, the feeling is never resolved, is it? So the effect of the 360 is that the story continues on indefinitely.
One very critical final point about the verse; the first verse, specifically. The first line has to draw the listener in, so in spite of all of the hullabaloo over the importance of the chorus, pay attention, very special attention, to your first line. Sometimes the chorus is sung first for a similar effect…to draw the listener in.
So far we’ve only discussed how verses can work best in a lyrical context. But what about the music? Usually there is a musical contrast between verse and chorus, and more often than not, the chorus melody lifts to some degree. I once heard someone say that the chorus always contains the highest note in the song 🙂 I can see why he’d say that because there is certainly is a feeling of a lot of choruses being at more of a fever pitch compared to the verses. Sometimes that is created just as much by the production than anything else; lots of background vocals coming in, maybe strings or other extra instruments being introduced, and the drummer riding the cymbals. This can give a sense of the chorus being louder and “higher”.
If you listen to the song I mentioned above, “Bubbly”…the melody of the chorus is not all that different from the verses, the notes are simply organized a little differently, they are shorter in length and the chords change more frequently. The melody in the chorus of each of the other songs definately lifts up to some degree.
“Teardrops On My Guitar” follows the classic contrast of a softer verse and more emotionally dominant chorus. The notes are longer in the verses, the melody is in the lower register, but there’s a kind of intimacy in the way it is sung that pulls you in. Verses do tend to be more low key (I don’t mean IN a lower key, I just mean softer), but if you make them too much so then you take the chance of losing a listener pretty quickly. Where else do you think the line “don’t bore us, get to the chorus” came from? 🙂 Songwriters often make the mistake of paying less attention to the verse melody and chord progression. But just as the verses need to drive the “story”, they also have to be compelling musically, enough so to keep those listener’s ears perked long enough to get to the chorus, if there is one. The performance, of course, also has an integral role. A lackluster vocal performance will make even the best melody a little mediocre. But I digress!
In “Hey There Delilah” the verse melody is again in a lower register, but the verses are more developed and much longer than the chorus. That’s because they are really doing the job of telling the story because the chorus has only that one emotional statement and that’s it..”Oh, it’s what you do to me.” You could write just about anything around a chorus like that. But it is made stronger by the verses, which do exactly the job they are meant to do, melodically and lyrically–to set the chorus up. Sometimes as you’re writing or re-writing a song, you realize that your verse melody seems to stand out more than your chorus. This is a good lesson…what do you do? One possibility is to switch them…make the verse melody the chorus and vice versa. Or you might want to find a new melody for the chorus altogether.
So now that we’ve examined the role of the verses more carefully, it’s time for you to go back through your songs and see how they measure up! It doesn’t mean you have to re-write anything that doesn’t work (although that’s certainly a good exercise!), but it will make you more aware of the function of the verse the next time you sit down to write a new tune. And remember, that sometimes things just work because they work, even if they break the so-called “rules”. Think of everything here simply as a guideline…but remember that sometimes it’s just as interesting to colour outside the line 🙂