By far the most common song form used today is Verse-Chorus. Here’s how it works.
In a nutshell
The jewel in the crown of Verse-Chorus structure is a single section, the Chorus, which contains, celebrates and hammers home the central idea of the song. The surrounding sections are all about leading up to, departing from and providing contrast to this section. It’s like an elaborate game of seduction: the thrill is as much as in the anticipation as in the main event.
The Simplest Version of The Form
At the core of the form is the alternation of Choruses and Verses. Typically in two, three or even four or five cycles. Here’s three:
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus
The Choruses contain the central idea to the song. The music and lyrics to these sections are often identical time after time. Sometimes there are minor variations – maybe the odd line is changed (sometimes keeping rhyme sounds which match with parallel sections) – but the gist and sentiment very rarely change. Usually the song’s hook appears liberally in the Chorus: very often in the first line, if not the last line, if not both. This is the section that gets the song ‘pumping’: usually the texture is thicker (more instrumental layers) than surrounding sections. It’s likely to be the most memorable and affecting section of the song.
The Verse builds up to the following Chorus. This is important: Verses and Choruses aren’t just alternating sections of equal value. It’s not just Yin and Yang. Yin is Yang’s wingman, a one-way street. The Verse sets the Chorus up, providing some background in the lyrics, starting from a musical place of low intensity and growing until it lands at the Chorus. This gives the overall structure a sense of progression and forward motion.
The Verses are typically the same length as the Chorus. This ensures some kind of balance between the two sections. Sometimes the Chorus is longer, but very rarely the other way round, since you don’t want to keep your audience waiting too long for the main event. More recently it’s become common for the second (and/or third) verse to be half the length of the first. This is usually achieved by making the first verse out of two identical (or nearly identical) halves and allows the song to progress through the Verse-Chorus cycle more quickly as the song progresses.
While the melodies and chords of successive Verses are usually identical, the lyrics usually change substantially. They add a new perspective, talk about something else, continue a story and/or offer new information or revelations. Sometimes there is no lyrical repetition at all. Sometimes one or two lines or phrases are repeated (such as the opening words, or the final two lines) or repeated with some minor variation. It’s exceptionally rare for the lyrics to be the same in successive verses.
The Chorus is often repeated twice (or more) at the end of the song, sometimes with the classic instruction ‘Repeat and fade’.
A straightforward example is Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5: two simple cycles of Verse and Chorus. In this case the Chorus is twice the length of the Verse, and the Chorus is repeated twice the final time (while it fades).
For an epic five-cycle song, there’s Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah (again with Chorus repetitions at the end).
For an example where the second verse is shorter than the first, check out Pasek and Paul’s Before It’s Over. Cutting that second verse in half gives the song a bit of extra momentum and stops it becoming static or the singer sounding too self-indulgent (it’s a reflective ballad).
Becoming More Adventurous
Beyond the basic core of alternating Verse and Choruses, it’s common to find a third section, distinct from the other two in content and character, after the second Verse-Chorus cycle. It goes by names such as the Release, Middle Eight, or – my favorite for its simplicity – The Bridge. With this third section included, it forms the most common archetype for Verse-Chorus form:
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge | Chorus
It’s as if the moment the Verse-Chorus cycle becomes predictable (one cycle is a one-off, two become a pattern, three become a routine), the Bridge comes in to throw us off the scent. (Parallel to how AABA form works.)
Notice also how in this most common variant there is a Bridge but no third Verse. Though it’s not unthinkable to come out of the Bridge into a third chorus (often shortened) before the final Chorus:
Verse | Chorus | Verse | Chorus | Bridge | Verse | Chorus
The Bridge is typically a complete departure from the material heard so far. Bridges commonly have entirely new melodic and harmonic material, and the texture is often new too. (Cutting out the bass or drums is a typical way to create anticipation for their return in the final chorus.) Lyrically they’re also usually a departure: flashing forward or back in time, providing a more philosophical perspective or adding something otherwise totally fresh to the song. The Bridge fulfils a similar function to the Verse, though it’s like the rebel third-child in being proudly different from the Verse as well as the Chorus.
But unlike the Verse, whose role is more about anticipation, the Bridge is more about diversion: being a clean break from the Chorus and anything heard so far. Hence its evocative alternative name, the Release. This might account for why some songs have a Bridge and third Verse – a chance to breakaway then build back to the Chorus. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation.
The simpler archetype without a third verse is really common in mass-market pop. It’s a direct and no-fuss way to structure a song. Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl is a classic example.
Jennifer Lopez’s Waiting for Tonight includes half of the second Verse (with a slight lyric change) going into the final Chorus.
Another common variation, much more common when there’s a Bridge than when there isn’t one, is to put a Chorus before the first verse. One example is Cee Lo Green’s Forget You. Notice how that extra repetition helps plant the Chorus in our brains before the first proper cycle.
Raising the Pulse
As we already discussed, in Verse-Chorus songs it’s highly common for the few bars before the Chorus to build and create anticipation. Usually this is done by adding to the texture and using harmonies that are more unusual or unstable. Often the lyric starts to take a new direction too, to signal that something different is coming up.
Sometimes this build becomes the function of a section in its own right, the Pre-Chorus. (Alternative names include Transitional Bridge or Climb.) When a Verse just has a build in its second half versus when a Verse leads into a Pre-Chorus in its own right isn’t always clear cut, not that the labelling really matters. What’s important is the notion that sometimes a Verse can be pretty static in intensity, but is followed by a section dedicated to building anticipation into the Chorus. Pre-Choruses tend to be 4 or 8 measures long (and shorter than the Verse) and Pre-Choruses that intend to assert their status as an independent section commonly show it through a significant change in the lyric – words that feel transitional, introductory or otherwise don’t quite stand up on their own – and a marked thickening of texture.
Including a Pre-Chorus expands the cycle into a three-part affair, but the principle of leading up to a central Chorus remains the same. Here’s how it might look:
Verse | Pre-Chorus | Chorus || Verse | Pre-Chorus | Chorus || Bridge || Chorus
The Pre-Chorus may also appear after the Bridge to build into the final Chorus:
Verse | Pre-Chorus | Chorus || Verse | Pre-Chorus | Chorus || Bridge || Pre-Chorus | Chorus
An example with a clear Pre-Chorus (but no bridge) is Oasis’s Wonderwall: hear how the lyric changes subject and the texture moves up a notch at ‘All the roads…’.
An example where you could argue for or against there being a separate Pre-Chorus is Drive By, by Train. We’re talking about ‘Oh, but that one night…’, the lyric takes a new direction, the melody changes and the texture intensifies in anticipation of the Chorus. Whatever you want to call it, the effect is the same.
More Bells and Whistles
The above structures form the backbone of the vast majority of Verse-Chorus songs. But like all good backbones, there are ribs sticking out side to side which enhance their basic function. Or whatever. Common additional sections include Intros, Outros and Instrumentals.
You probably won’t be bowled over to read that Intros open a song, just before the first Verse. They’re often derived from the Verse or Chorus – one common trick is to use the same instrumental material without the vocals on top. And that’s the general rule: the first Verse starts when the lyric starts properly. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for vocal riffing or fragments of the main lyric before the song proper. It’s also become fashionable for singers to include their names in the Intro. Just so the kids at home know who’s on the track.
Similarly, an Outro (or Ending) is the final section. More often that not it’s really just a continuation of the last chorus – maybe the same instrumental material with some vocal riffing. Even some more saying of the artists’ names.
Instrumentals are common in dance tracks, or where bands have an instrumental performer they want to feature. They typically occur instead of the Bridge (an Instrumental is kind of a Bridge with no words) or as well as the Bridge, just either side of it. Again, the game is to divert from the established Verse-Chorus cycle in that magical middle spot. If there is a major central Instrumental section with a solo, sometimes that solo continues or returns into the final Chorus. Short Instrumentals – called Tags (vocal repetition of a short idea) or Turnarounds (instrumental cycle to give a breather before the next section) – can also appear after Choruses to give everyone four or so measures to chill out before the cycle starts again.
I’m not going to give any of examples here because adding these extra sections creates so many variations. You’re as well taking apart some songs you love and trying to work out how these principles apply to them.
Instead, have this masterpiece of schematic design – an attempt to bring most of what I’ve said into a single place:
(Download a nifty printable version here.)
Pretty neat, huh? If kind of complicated. That’s because perfect versions of this form doesn’t really exist except in textbooks. You’ll notice that most of the real-life examples above come with a host of qualifications about how they’re different from the pure theory. That’s because theory comes from practice, not the other way round. Not every song is going to fit the cookie-cutter mold, because songs aren’t made with molds.
The paradigm is just a useful way of understanding how songs can be structured. It’s the principles not the specific realizations of them that are important – the way a song grows, journeys and plays on its audience’s expectations is pretty much universal.
Oh, jeez. Which structure should I pick?
How you use all the possibilities depends on you, your needs and the needs of your song. A noncommittal answer, I know. But it’s the countless variations of the Verse-Chorus paradigm that make the form so flexible, and playing with it a creative act and not a painting-by-numbers exercise.
There are no rules about what goes where and under what circumstances. Songs can be effective with the most basic version of this structure. They can also be effective with most of the bells and whistles included. They can be effective with sections added or removed that don’t fit the above model. The important thing is to understand the principles of why the sections come in the order they typically do, and what each section adds to the broader whole of a song.
As you write, sooner or later most songs start crying out for their own particular structure. Other than that, it’s really just a game of choosing what seems to work for you, or keeping playing around until you feel your song’s structure makes sense. I’ve written songs which had Instrumentals added then removed, that had multiple versions of an Introduction before we settled on one, or even where Pre-Chorus got cut but later became the material for the Bridge. More often than not it’s by feeling, not thinking, that you’ll intuit where a song’s emotional journey – and I don’t use that term lightly – needs more or less time to breathe.