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Song Anatomy 101:
by Holly Watson
They just played a brand new song on the radio. You're not sure if you really like it that much — you may even think it stinks! You probably couldn't remember how the verses went, to save your soul. But, later on in the day, you find yourself humming a little tune, maybe even singing a line or two that you've never sung before. And then it hits you — you've been hooked!
It's no musical mystery. It's been happening to folks for ages — those sing-along-able choruses that just won't leave them alone. Which means the songwriter has done his job well. He's crafted a chorus that can't be ignored — it gets your attention, sticks in your mind, makes you eager to hear it again (and sends you off to the record store for it, he hopes!).
The verse/chorus format (with or without a lyrical bridge), or ABAB, is undoubtedly the most popular style in use today. Songs with a chorus get a lot of radio play, become hit songs, and make great crowd-pleasers at sing-along gatherings and parties, not to mention favorite singing-in-the-shower material.
There are a number of reasons that most choruses are so unforgettable. The most important is that the chorus contains the hook/title of the song, which is often repeated within the chorus. The listener can know the name of the song and what it's basically about all in one shot. In addition, the chorus usually carries the strongest melody or musical theme in the song, also repeated whenever possible within the chorus section. Even repetition of the hook's rhythm enhances its memorability. So you can see how vital it is to your chorus's success to first come up with a dynamite hook!
The chorus, being the focus of your song, should sum up, give the gist of it, make a general statement, as opposed to the more detailed verses. It contain the song's essence.
The general placement of the chorus is after the first verse (sometimes two verses precede a chorus), again after the next verse, and — whether or not there's a bridge section — at the end of the song. Occasionally, a song starts out with a strong, catchy, attention-getting chorus; more often the song builds toward the chorus, which is felt as a satisfying release.
The chorus melody should be the same each time it is repeated, but distinctive in melody from the verse. And, while the verse lyric adds new information throughout the song, the chorus lyric should remain the same each time it is heard. Again, there are always some exceptions; a song may have a slight lyric change in the final chorus, as a twist on its previous statement.
Chorus lengths vary from song to song. Some are the same number of lines as the verses; others are half as long. Sometimes a double chorus works well, in which two back-to-back, four- or eight-bar phrases, musically identical, are used to really play up the chorus/hook.
Sheila Davis, in her book The Craft of Lyric Writing, suggests that you test your chorus out by reading through your verses and then stating, "And that's why I say," right before reading your chorus. It should make sense if the chorus has done its job.
Your chorus/hook is the highlight of your song. It's the part your listener will walk away whistling to himself before he's memorized your verses. So make your chorus count — HOOK 'EM!