Songwriting Elegance Through Song Form: Part III

by Mary Dawson

The "Verse-Chorus" Song

Imagine a family of three sisters. The first young lady is more the "natural" type. She doesn't wear much makeup but is beautiful in her simplicity -- always well-groomed, but conservative and relatively quiet. The second is the flamboyant, energetic, sometimes loud sister that everyone knows. When she enters a room, she always makes a statement and calls attention to herself. The third sister is the elegant, sophisticated one -- with sweeping entrances and real style and grace. If you can imagine these three young ladies, you already have a basic understanding of the subject we are studying in this series of articles -- the very important subject of song structure or song form.

We have already established that writing hit songs is not simply a matter of expression but is also a matter of communication -- emotional communication from the heart and mind of the songwriter to the heart and mind of the listener. Over the last century, these three "sister" song forms have dominated most genres of popular music, and listeners have been conditioned to connect most readily with songs written in these forms. They are the AAA Song (the natural, quiet sister) the Verse-Chorus Song (the flamboyant, energetic sister) and the AABA Song (the elegant, sophisticated sister). Serious songwriters who hope to have their songs heard and loved by millions of listeners must become well-acquainted with these three "young ladies" and know how to use these song structures skillfully.

In my last article we focused on the first of these song forms -- the AAA. We learned that "A" always stands for a verse, so the AAA Song Form is really just a series of verses containing identical music but different lyrics in each. Like the first sister described above, this song form is simple and sometimes quiet -- but it can be very effective when used well. The lasting impact of the great folk songs of the 60's and 70's has proven the effectiveness of this song form when coupled with the skilled craftsmanship of master writers like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jim Webb. We will now turn our attention to the second of the three commercial song forms and the one that still dominates most hit music today -- the Verse-Chorus Song.

In the middle of the Nineteenth Century Verse-Chorus Songs first began appearing in America. Because the choruses of these songs were so repetitive and memorable, they were easy to learn and quickly became part of the Civil War movement. Songs like Dixie, The Battle Hymn of the Republic and Marching Through Georgia contained choruses that stirred people to action and became part of the movements they represented.

After the Civil War ended, this song form found its way into the theater. In fact, Charles K. Harris's famous Verse-Chorus Song, After the Ball, received a five-minute standing ovation when it was first presented in San Francisco and became the first "Million-Seller Song" in history. Today -- some 150 years later -- the Verse-Chorus Song is still working its magic on audiences all around the world and savvy songwriters know that this song form is dynamite!!

Unlike the AAA Song (or one-part song) the Verse-Chorus Song has a distinct second section which is the chorus. The chorus contains the main hook of the song (the most memorable lyrical and melodic line) and stands out in stark contrast from the verses. In fact, the chorus is so distinct that it can often be removed from the rest of the song and actually "stand on its own." Unlike a bridge, the chorus is not musically transitional, but makes a concluding statement for the song. The chorus is the part of the song everybody knows!

Here are a few key principles to apply as you learn to use the Verse-Chorus Song effectively:
  1. The Chorus MUST Contrast -- The chorus, which contains the hook of the song, must stand out and contrast from the rest of the song. This is usually done musically with a "lift" in the melody. In other words, the music of the chorus is often placed higher in the scale to make it stand out and to spotlight the hook. Writers often use a key change at the chorus to separate it and set it apart. Lyrically, also, the rhyme pattern and even the cadence of the syllables can and should change at the chorus to define and emphasize it.

  2. The Chorus MUST Repeat -- The whole purpose of the Verse-Chorus Song is to call attention to the hook or the main idea. To do this effectively, the chorus must repeat several times throughout the song. Most commercial songs today contain at least two verses and two choruses with a possible third repetition of the chorus to conclude the song. It is extremely important that the verses are constructed in such a way that the chorus sounds like the inevitable and logical conclusion to each of the verses.

  3. The Chorus MUST Arrive Soon -- There is a famous little couplet that is almost a mantra for songwriters It goes something like this:
    If you don't move quickly to the chorus
    Chances are your song will bore us
    Boredom is the "kiss of death" for any song. When writing a Verse-Chorus Song, in particular, the songwriter must be keenly aware that the all-important hook of the song will not usually appear at all until the first chorus. That means we have to get through the introduction and at least one complete verse before we even arrive at the section that contains the most memorable moment of the song. One of the most common weaknesses in aspiring Verse-Chorus writers is creating an overly long-verse that delays the arrival of the chorus and thereby "loses" the listeners.

  4. The Chorus MUST Pay Off -- One hit songwriter has said: "Writing a Verse-Chorus Song is like climbing a mountain. When you get to the top, the view better be worth the climb!" The purpose of the verses is to take us up the mountain, and when we arrive, the chorus provides the "view." The chorus must deliver that "Eureka Moment" that brings satisfaction and emotional fulfillment for the listener. Whatever you need to do to make that happen, do it -- and you will have written a great Verse-Chorus Song.
We have now met two of the three sisters in our Song Form Family. Tune in next month when we will meet the last and most elegant, sophisticated member -- the AABA Song Form.

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

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