Tech Tip:Song Construction: Chorus Construction
By John Braheny
The majority of choruses adhere to certain guidelines. I say 'majority' because there are songs that ignore some of the guidelines and still win by the strength of their performance, arrangement and/or production.
- The title should appear in the chorus, in a way that, by virtue of its placement in the chorus and/or its degree of repetition, we know it's the title. If words or phrases other than the title repeat in the chorus, or in strong positions, the listener won't know which is the title when they call the radio station to request it or ask for it at the record store, which is why you sometimes see songs with two titles, like "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," "Blue (Ba Da Dee)" or "C'mon and Ride It (The Train)" - that usually means that someone felt the song's title was not its strongest hook, or even that the song has two hooks and they're covering their bets by putting both in the title. Since you can't buy or request a song if you can't remember its name, these are very important commercial considerations.
- Keep the information simple enough for people to remember easily. If you're a literary genius, you may tend to think most choruses are too simple. Don't worry about it. They need to be simple!
- They need to distill and focus the song.
- They need to stand repetition.
- The words of the chorus need to be easily remembered. It also helps if the melody is fun and easy to sing.
- The action of the verses should not pass the action of the chorus chronologically. Choruses can run from two to eight lines (depending on your definition of a line).
Here are some common lyric constructions:
- Repeat the same line two or more times. This can get monotonous unless that line is fun to sing or shout (like "Take this job and shove it"), it's sung with a style that makes it interesting (like "Whoomp! There it is"), and/or it's musically exciting.
- First and third line the same, second and fourth lines different. This offers the possibility of having a strong "payoff" line to end the chorus. The last line in the chorus is a power position, and there are high expectations for it to be strong and satisfying. Examples: Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is.;" Brian McKnight "Anytime" (McKnight/Brandon Barnes); Paula Cole "I Don't Want To Wait"
- First and third lines the same, second and fourth lines the same. Provides maximum repetition of both lines and makes the chorus very easy to remember. Example: Eagle Eye Cherry's "Save Tonight"
- First three lines are the same, fourth line different. This has some of the potential monotony of #1 and the payoff advantage of #2. The repetition of the first three lines makes for a powerful setup, so the payoff needs to be strong. Example: Steve Winwood's "Higher Love."
- All four lines different. Doesn't risk monotony and doesn't set up as much of an expectation for a powerful last line as #2 and #3 (but give them one anyway). Examples: Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar's classic "The Wind Beneath My Wing;" Dixie Chicks' "Wide Open Spaces" (Susan Gibson); Mariah Carey's "Dream Lover" (Carey/Dave Hall, David Porter); Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn" (Thornally/Cutter/Preven)
- The first or last part of each line is repeated (and is almost always the title). This is one of the oldest and most common structures. It goes back to "call and response" songs in tribal music and Gregorian Chants. Examples: The Irene Cara hit, "Fame,"(Dean Pitchford/Michael Gore); Ace of Base's "All That She Wants;" Shedaisy's "Little Goodbyes;" "Still The One" (Shania Twain, Robert John "Mutt" Lang)
- The first and last line the same, the second and third are each different. This gives you a chance to repeat the hook line at both the beginning and the end. Examples: Huey Lewis' "The Heart Of Rock And Roll."
These are just a few common structures. There are many more. Chorus structures are far less standardized than song forms. Pick up a contemporary songbook at your local music store or listen to a Top 40 countdown and what you'll find is an incredible degree of diversity. In fact, a good share of hits are successful because their choruses are unusual - like Macy Gray's "I Try." Melodic construction of choruses roughly follows the lyric structures, however there is a tremendous variety of rhythmic and phrasing options available. A lyricist should always keep in mind that there is great flexibility in pop music in the ways that lyrics can be stretched and spaced and positioned relative to the music, and looking at a lyric on paper only gives us a part of the story.
This excerpt from John Braheny's book, The Craft and Business of Songwriting (2nd edition, 2002, Writers Digest Books) has been edited for length. It's available at bookstores everywhere. For info about John's critiquing and consulting services, go to www.johnbraheny.com.