Structure in songwriting is all about the sections your song is made out of – how those sections repeat and fit together according to some kind of grand masterplan.
And while there are lots of structures a song can take, some are more popular than others. This article is about one of the most popular – Verse-Chorus Structure.
We’re going to look at the different parts that come together to form a Verse-Chorus Structure: what they are, how they fit together, and what the point of writing a Verse-Chorus Structure is anyway.
If you’re a regular reader of my articles here at The Song Foundry, you’ll know I’m not really into giving you quick tricks and tips that might make you feel good in the short term but don’t really help you understand how to be a better songwriter in the long run. But if you’re a regular reader of my articles, you’ll also know that I’ll throw in a handful of cheap gags to keep you going right to the end.
That said, if you’re short on time because you’re out and you just realized you left your hair straighteners on, or you just read a ‘Life Is Short’ meme on Facebook once and took it a bit too seriously, that’s OK. You can check out our short video on Verse-Chorus Structure on the video page instead, or just skip to downloading the one-page summary of this article here.
Otherwise, if you’re still with me and ready to dive head-first into this comprehensive guide to Verse-Chorus Structure, let’s do it.
Verse-Chorus Structure in a Nutshell
Soon enough, we’ll talk about the pieces that make up a Verse-Chorus Structure and look at the various ways you can fit them all together.
But first, let’s start with a big idea – the simple game that every Verse-Chorus Structure plays in one way or another.
Because here’s the thing: there’s a reason your starter is less exciting than your main course. There’s a reason we have Advent. There’s a reason we have foreplay.
Verse-Chorus structures are their own game of anticipation. Your Chorus is the main event of your song, the bit where you put your song’s hook and the bit where you really hammer your song’s message home. And every other section is about building anticipation or providing contrast to your song’s Chorus.
Hold on to that idea, because it helps explain everything else we’re going to talk about in this article.
The Basic Version of the Form – Verses and Choruses
OK, so you guessed it: the most important sections in a Verse-Chorus Structure are usually the Verse and the Chorus. They nearly always come in pairs, in what I’m going to call cycles.
Realistically, the simplest Verse-Chorus Structure could be two Verse-Chorus cycles. But three is also common. Sometimes you even find four or five cycles.
Here’s what three cycles looks like:
As you know already, the Chorus is the song’s main event. In a simple Verse-Chorus Structure that makes the Verse the Chorus’s wingman: it’s the section that sets the musical world of the song, sets the scene in the lyric and starts to build in anticipation somewhere in its second half – maybe with a busier instrumental texture, more adventurous harmony and/or a lyric that starts moving somewhere new.
That means the Chorus is usually more intense than the Verse: its instrumental texture is usually busier (either more instruments or the same number of instruments playing more notes), the vocal register is often higher on average than in there verse, and the lyric is probably more repetitive than in the Verse. (In fact, sometimes the Chorus is just the song’s hook phrase over and over, like in Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady’.)
Speaking of repetition: you probably know the big idea that 99% of the time a song’s Choruses are identical (or more-or-less identical) every time they come back, but the Verses have identical (or more-or-less identical) music but different lyrics. Your song would get pretty boring pretty quickly if the game of anticipation was exactly the same every time – so each Verse talking about something else is one way your song gets to tell more of its story and one way you keep your Verse-Chorus Structure interesting.
Typically a song’s Verses are the same length as its Choruses. 8 or 16 measures for each is really common, though you do find other combinations and you sometimes find the Verses and Choruses that aren’t exactly the same length.
While all the Choruses are usually the same length, one common trick is to make the second Verse (and third Verse, if there is one) to half the length of the first to keep the song moving forward.
Though Verses and Choruses almost always appear in pairs, sometimes you find the last Verse-Chorus cycle extended by having the Chorus there twice, like this:
Sometimes the extra chorus is just an ordinary repeat, though if you’re writing a 90s pop classic it might come in with a key change, and if you’re writing an 80s power ballad it might be a repeat and fade, where the chorus comes round again while it fades out.
For a straightforward example of this straightforward structure, you can check out 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 example where the second verse is half the length of 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 keeps things moving forward.
Becoming More Adventurous – Writing a Bridge
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:
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:
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 – Adding a Pre-Chorus
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 noticeable thickening of the instrumental texture.
Including a Pre-Chorus expands the cycle into a three-part thing, but the principle of leading up to a central Chorus remains the same. Here’s how it might look:
The Pre-Chorus may also appear after the Bridge to build into the final Chorus:
For a real-life song with a clear Pre-Chorus (but no bridge) you can check out Oasis’s Wonderwall: hear how the lyric changes subject and the texture moves up a notch at ‘All the roads…’.
Extra Sections for Extra Credit – Intros, Outros and Instrumentals
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 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. Sometimes, as I mentioned, this is a repeat and fade of the Chorus. Sometimes it’s a dedicated measure or two – often derived from the Chorus – that finish the song in a decisive way.
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, here’s a handy summary of everything we’ve talked about in a single diagram:
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.