Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Song Structure Part Two: What Makes a Good Chorus?

Opinions will vary wildly on the subject, but I have always been of the firm belief that a song is only as strong as its chorus. If a song was a joke, the chorus would be the punchline. If the verses of a song are the appetizer, the chorus is the perfectly-done, melt-in-your-mouth steak. If music was sex, the verses are foreplay and the chorus would be the orgasm. (Speaking of which, I bet the guys in the picture above get SO much tail!)

The chorus is the part of the song you get stuck in your head at 3 AM. In fact, so important is the chorus, that most songs take their titles from lyrics in the chorus (unless you are New Order, in which case the song title should have as little to do with the song as possible because you're all clever and British like that...) So it pays to put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that the chorus to your song is as effective as it can be. Here are some thoughts as to how to do just that.


• Manipulating Energy Levels

Most commonly, the chorus portion of the song is the most energetic. So it's a good idea to find ways in which you can manipulate the energy levels of your track. In fact, manipulating energy levels is a good part of what songwriting is about - the constant fluctuations between the peaks and valleys of your verses and chorus sections. Most rock bands using a real drummer even play a little faster tempo-wise on the chorus than the rest of the song. You can do this in electronic stuff if you want to, but for most electronic styles, it's generally best to keep the tempo constant if only to keep the DJ from pitching a fit. One idea that works nicely is to boost the 'resolution' of rhythmic parts. For instance, if your drums have an 1/8th note hi-hat rhythm during the verses, try upping it to 16th notes on the chorus. The same idea works great for basslines and other synth parts as well. Doing something in a harder, more aggressive style? Try doubling the tempo of your drums during the chorus and wait for the mosh pit to break out.

• Complexity
It's not uncommon for the chorus to be a bit more complex in terms of chord progression than the verses. In fact, this can be a very useful way of manipulating the energy level of a track. If you have a highly repetitive verse section bouncing between, say, two chords/notes, that repetition can build tension that is then resolved with a chorus that might contain four. If you do this, you need to pay special attention to how long you let the verses ramble on. Too long and it becomes boring... Too short and the impact when the more complex chorus comes in isn't nearly as great. But if you get it just right, it can really make the chorus punch through and raise the energy level.

• Arrangement

Traditionally, the chorus is the part of the song where the arrangement (the number of instruments playing at once and in what frequency ranges) gets its busiest. Again, you can do just the opposite as well and have things strip down at the chorus, but a more busy arrangement is definitely more common. The important thing is that there is a noticeable change. Writing a chorus is not about subtlety. It's about clobbering the listener over the head with pure, unadulterated AWESOME. So whichever way you choose to go, try to make the contrast between verse and chorus a dramatic one. The types of instruments and sounds you select here is important as well. Generally, you'll want the instruments in your chorus to have a bit more power and oomph than those in your verses. This is where to break out the searing guitar power chords, the full string arrangement, and the taiko drummer.

• Speaking of Drums...

I already mentioned that playing around with tempo and note resolution on your drum tracks can be a great way to make your choruses punch through a bit more. It's not a bad idea to play around with the types of sounds you use on your drum tracks as well. Layering of drum sounds to make them 'bigger' and more complex works really nicely during a songs chorus. A real drummer might play sidestick for the backbeat during the verses, and then play the full snare on the choruses. With electronic stuff, try layering your snare with a big, noisy clap or even a rumbling tom-tom during the chorus. You can even use entirely different drum kits in between portions, although ideally, there should be some overlap so it's not completely jarring to the listener. Many times, I'll have electronic drum parts during verses, and have acoustic sounds layered on top of that during the chorus. A lot of power and energy in songs can come from the drum track, so experiment with different ways to really make them pound during a chorus.

• Effects
You can use effects processing to make your chorus punch through better as well. Try distorting a vocal, or introducing a heavily reverbed element among an otherwise dry mix. Compress some of the elements unique to the chorus harder than those in the rest of the song. You get the idea... As you can see now, a good part of what we're after with a good chorus is contrast, so check out what dramatic elements effects can produce to that end.

• Hooks, Hooks, Hooks
If you've never heard the term, a hook is an especially memorable or catchy part of a song. It's what 'hooks' you into wanting to play the song over and over again until your neighbors call the cops. The most obvious type of hook is a catchy melodic part, but it can also be an unusually infectious rhythm, a powerful lyric, or even a well-placed movie sample. Coming up with great hooks is not a skill you will develop overnight. In fact, it's probably one of the more difficult skills there is in songwriting and is the reason why we're not all millionaire pop stars. As with any aspect of music, practice is the key. As I suggested in the last installment, deconstructing songs you find really catchy and powerful is a good place to start. As your ear for melody develops, your ability to write more effective hooks will too. The important thing to remember here is that the hook or hooks in your chorus, should be the catchiest, most memorable, kick-ass part of your song.

• Lyrics

Related to the above, if you're recording music with vocals, you need not only melodic hooks, but lyrical ones as well. Lyrically, your chorus should summarize and underscore what your song is about. It's the punctuation on the sentence. It can also be the trickiest part to get right because you're trying to make a lot of impact in a relatively short time. So spend lots of time on the lyrics for your chorus. Ask yourself if another band wrote it, would you find yourself singing it in the shower? Can you imagine fans at a show getting excited for this part of the song and singing the lyrics back to you? Don't settle for the first thing you pull out of thin air. Is there a more powerful or eloquent way you can say what you're trying to say? Is the rhythmic cadence of the words the best it can be? Is it simple and memorable? It may very well be that the first thing you come up with ends up being the best, but most of the time, a little revision will take things to an entirely different level.

There's just a few ideas to get you on the right track. There are no rules, so try different approaches when you're working on a song to see what sounds the best. What are some of your favorite tricks for punching up a chorus?

3 comments:

dave romero said...

I suggest going through early beatles and some schubert songs (he wrote a ton of songs). between those two there's enough genius to clearly bring home the importance of structure. (you don't need to like it to learn from it)

also, while alternating verse/chorus songs are the most common it's not the only effective song form, pop or not

hooks are the key in all forms of western music whether songs, symphonies, sonatas, whatever. It doesn't matter how skillful you are at all the other aspects of song writing, if you don't have a great hook you won't have a great song.

what's really tough is that no amount of training will give you the ability to come up with good hooks. Mozart and McCartney are equals in this regard (although the latter can't notate his way out of a paper bag). You either got it or you don't. ouch!

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Dean said...

Love McCartney, but for sheer quantity and quality of catchy bits, Mozart is streets ahead. Sorry, Beatles fans (of which I'm one).