A song without a chorus can hardly be called a song. This rather bad statement is my personal opinion so if you don’t agree, that’s okay. But I would like to start this lesson with this statement, not only to wake you up, but rather because it’s one of the key-statements of this lesson. So if you don’t like songs without a chorus and never intend to write one, than probably you won’t feel at home in this class this month. I must say I never felt at home when I was at
school but that’s another story… But if you do stick around, even if you don’t like to write choruses, maybe you will change your mind about them.
A chorus is more or less the heart of a song, at least if it’s a good one of course. Why this is true is not as obvious as it seems. People always tend to remember the chorus of a song, while it may not even be the most interesting part of the song at all. The easiest explanation of course
is the fact that the chorus is usually played a couple of times during a song. But if this was the only reason why a chorus is the heart of most songs, how come then that lots of choruses are easily forgotten, even if they are played seemingly endless in the
fadeout of a song? So there must be more to it.
In this lesson we will see it’s hard to reveal the secrets of a good chorus. Writing a good chorus may be more a matter of the heart (something called talent?) than the mind. But since this counts for songwriting in general, don’t be afraid; there are always some tricks to learn to help those who have to struggle a little more then the lucky, more talented ones. And believe me, most of us belong to the first group, to put it stronger, even the most talented ones often join the struggling crowd when they’re not inspired…
In lesson 5, we already saw some elements a good chorus should have. Now we will take a closer look at these elements, by discussing some rules you should follow if you want to write a good chorus. These rules are:
It should be catchy
It should contain elements of the rest of the song
It shouldn’t be an anti-climax
Following these rules, you obey to the most important rules of writing a good chorus. We will take a look at these rules in the next paragraph. You can also click on the links to go directly to the discussion of each of these rules.
Rule 1: a chorus should be catchy
What makes a chorus catchy? The easiest answer (for me at least) is: listen to all those golden oldies. Almost all the classics from the sixties and the seventies have catchy choruses. Of course The Beatles were real masters at this, but it seems all the bands that became famous in those days were able to write catchy choruses which seem to stick in your mind forever. Who doesn’t know the chorus of Honky Tonk Women for example…
Listening to examples is a great way to teach yourself, and that counts for songwriting too! But there’s something more to say about this issue too.
Keep it simple
One of the main rules in writing a good chorus is to keep it simple. Try to avoid to make the chorus sound complicated.
This doesn’t mean that as long as you keep it simple technically spoken the chorus will sound simple! A chorus built around a difficult, but well written musical part will be easier to listen to than a technically simple chorus which is written in an unlogical manner.
Consider The Average Listener
The above indicates you’ll have to keep the average listener in mind while writing your chorus. Most listeners aren’t musicians so don’t forget that! The average listener will often look for things he/she can recognize, a certain general feeling of what sounds logical and which has been developed during many years.
You would probably think now that I’m saying most listeners are dumb but that’s not the case. So don’t treat them like that. They won’t buy the same stuff over and over again (‘though this seems to be heavily contradicted by the house-rage of this time….) so you will have to keep them anxious. In the chorus you can try this by experimenting with backing vocals, special
arrangements etc, but be careful and don’t overdo things.
So in general you could say the secret to write a catchy chorus is to make it sound logical.
Rule 2: a chorus should contain elements of the rest of the song
In this lesson we already saw a chorus is one of the most important parts of your song. In most cases, it’s the part of the song which will be played the most often. So it better be good!
Another trick to make your chorus a good chorus is to give it the treatment it deserves! Since it’s the main element of your song, whether you like it or not, it should get all the attention it needs while you write it, to gain all the attention it needs when you play it. This brings me to a rather contradictionary issue: writing songs is a very intuïtive job and that also counts
for writing choruses. But to obey to the rule that a chorus should contain elements of the rest of the song, you should at least examine and evaluate your music thoroughly. In mine opinion just writing your music from the heart will generally result in the best music, but it’s not very sensible only to rely on your heart. Evaluating your music can be very useful and especially when it comes to writing a chorus.
So no matter how you write, whether you write straight from the heart or not, you will have to evaluate your song. Not only because it will enhance your songwriting skills simply because you are “forced” to think about what you have written, but also because “technical rules” like these
can only be followed by using technical means like evaluation.
Since a chorus is the part that will be played and remembered most, it’s the best place to “advertise” your song. Maybe if you consider the chorus to be the advertisement of your song, you will better understand the importance of putting elements of the rest of the song into it, making it kind of an excerpt of your song. Some advantages of doing so are:
People will recognize the song by just hearing the chorus. But it works the other way around too; they will recognize the chorus as being part of that piece of music they accidentally hear when
they enter a bar for example.
People will remember your song much more easily. Because the chorus is an excerpt of the song, they will only have to remember the excerpt to remember the song. Why not using old school-tricks when they work fine?
By putting elements of the song together in your chorus, in fact you are just making a miniature of your song. When you do this right, it will result in a very strong piece of music. Producers will be pleased when they see you have skills to achieve this, because they usually want you to cut out all the unnecessary stuff from your song.
But what elements should you take? This in fact is completely up to you and depends on the song you are writing. Generally it works fine to pick some of the more melodic parts of your song, simply because most people remember a melodic piece of music better than a monotone piece. And that’s about all there is to say on this issue, but there are some pitfalls to look out for.
These tips might help you avoiding them:
Don’t copy too much
While putting the best elements of your song together into your chorus, you are taking the risk of ending up with a chorus that unveils all the secrets of your song making the rest of the song predictable and dull. Therefor it’s better not to copy too literally but hussle things a little.
Tricks like changing the key of the parts while played during the chorus can help. Just consider all the best parts to be some sort of colour-palette, which enables you to make various versions of the same picture.
Don’t make the chorus too long. Better leave out some good parts than desperately putting
everything together in the chorus! Good choruses almost never exceed 6 lines.
As you can see, this part of writing songs can be very tricky. Don’t forget your skills will grow after every song you’ve finished, even the more technical skills that you’ll need to write a good song, like evaluating your song and deciding what parts should be reflected into the chorus. I deliberatly used the term reflect, because this is one of the most vague issues of writing songs,
making it one of the most difficult parts of it. But aren’t things always getting more difficult when technique meets feelings?
Rule 3: a chorus shouldn’t be an anti-climax
The third important rule seems simple but, unfortunatly, is not. Just like the second rule we discussed above, we will discover it’s again a matter of walking on the edge. You will have to carefully find your way between what’s good and what is bad, and there isn’t a clear path to follow. But again, experience is something you can’t buy but which comes free with endurance and
perseverance. So just don’t give up when it’s getting tough; your peaks will get higher and your downs won’t be as low as they used to be! So a chorus shouldn’t be an anti-climax. Clear! But why is this rule not as simple as it seems? I will try to explain this. If you follow the first two rules you won’t too quickly end up with a chorus that’s an anti-climax, just because these two rules ensure your chorus will be more or less the heart of the song. But still your chorus can become an anti-climax, simply because another part of the song attrackts too much the attention. A very impressive instrumental break can easily put the chorus in the shadows. So if your chorus is an anti-climax depends not only on
the chorus itself, but on the rest of the song too. To avoid this disturbing effect, you will have to be very careful where to put that instrumental break, charismatic leadvocal-line etc. To make things even more complicated, you will have to watch out for the chorus to become the climax of the song itself! This can be disasterous to your song, because you will end up with a song which repeats it’s climax over and over again, with the result that you end up with a song that doesn’t seem to have a climax at all! So every time you write a song you will have to deal with the problem to write a strong, catchy chorus but on the other hand not to make it too strong….
This virtual contradictionary is hard to solve, just listen to daily radio. But there are some ways to help you with this:
To avoid the chorus and the climax of the song to interfere with each other, you can try to make a very clear distinction between these two rivals. You can do so by putting them apart from each other “physically” (give each of them their own space in the song), or by making them sound as different as the song allows you to.
The clearer the difference, the less chance of interference.
If you can’t beat them…
Another aproach is to put the climax in the chorus itself. This works best when done in the final chorus. This solution requires you to change that chorus, otherwise it won’t work, as we discussed earlier in this lesson. These changes can range from just changing the key, adding additional instruments (like backing-vocals) to even changing the lead-vocal line. When done
right you will end up with a super-chorus, which won’t be forgotten easily!
I will briefly discuss each example and will try to show you how the above is implemented into the examples. I also will point at some tricks I used in these choruses. Don’t forget there are numerous examples to come up with, each with different combinations and interpretations of the rules we discussed in this lesson. Just consider these soundfiles as my contribution to what this
is all about: music and the fun of it!
The first example is the chorus of Alien Tune, taken from the live-recorded third cassette of The Stag, Reset. Lesson 6 included the intro of this spacy song so maybe it’s not a complete new-one for some of you.
This version of the chorus is played at the end of the song, and to make it stand out to the other choruses just because it’s the last one, the third line is added to it, which is actually a repetition of the first line. The original chorus has only three lines, this final one has four.
Another trick I used in this chorus is as simple as efficiënt to draw the attention a chorus needs. I used an effects-processor to distort the lead-vocals. Keeping the original lead-vocaltrack and putting the distorted vocals behind it creates a very dramatic effect. A band like ZZ-Top used a trick like this in their song Manic Mechanic.
The next example is also taken from Reset, and is more melodic than the previous example. This will make it a lot easier to remember this chorus as you will probably notice, but this of course is also due to the fact that parts of the lyrics are repeated a few times. Another trick used in this chorus to make it the eye-catcher of this song are the backing-vocals, which answer the questions “asked” by the lead-singer. Using several backing-vocals and making them “fade out” into the lead-vocals enhances the choir-effect. Recorded in a real studio in stead of the rehearsal-room this can sound real impressive.
Please note the sound-sample starts with the last line of the verse, which features a break to focus the attention to the chorus even more.
Another track taken from Reset, so recorded live at the rehearsal-room of The Stag, is the chorus of The Widow’s Game. This chorus is an example of a miniature of the entire song. It contains parts of the main riff of the song, but the lead-vocals switch to a melodic, strong line, while they stick more to the rhythm of the song during the verses.
The final example of this lesson features the first track of The Last Season, the first cassette of The Stag. This chorus is short and melodic, yet it sounds simple. A chorus like this is hard to forget, whether you like it or not. In this particular case, the trick I used to make the chorus stand out to the rest of the song is the addition of backing-vocals (again) and a more prominent role for the keyboards in comparison to the verses. Changes like this are great to draw the attention to the chorus.