Friday, 12 December 2014

How To Write a Song Part 2 - The Chorus

I have little idea of music theory. I am not an amazing guitarist or piano player, yet I have been able to write songs that I'm proud of and that have produced effusive responses from people who have never met me and don't owe me any loyalty in praising my creations.



I know that you can go to music college and learn the theory that will make you effective at playing and writing, but I also believe that there is an element of personal passion and the wild nature of beginners and amateurs that stands tall and makes good songs. So:

Most songs consist of a vocal melody that is sung (unless it's a rap), with a rhythmic and chord-based backing. A lot of people write songs by playing around with chord riffs or patterns and then singing over the top of it. Often the result is a vocal melody line that just follows the changes of the chords and is therefore either simple perfection, or more likely, rather dull. However, if you're a young band just starting out, or a group of accomplished players over the age of 40, this method of writing songs will be quite adequate because it is tremendous fun in that moment and your friends will love it. Check out my previous blog for how it works if you're 17:   


            

DO YOU NEED A CHORUS?


Some songs don't have a chorus; they're just a straight or crooked line to the end and then they stop. Such songs can be great, as the T-Rex classic 'Ride a White Swan' (by Marc Bolan) shows. I would contend that this is just one long chorus and a guitar solo, but I'm sure many wouldn't agree.




Here's another song that is just a single section repeated. Is it a verse without a chorus or a chorus without a verse? Who cares?  'Ain't No Sunshine' (by Bill Withers)



However, the pop convention is to have a chorus, and I do like a good chorus. The verse builds towards the chorus and the chorus packs the power of the song musically and lyrically.

THE SIMPLEST OF ALL CHORUSES


The simplest chorus repeats the same vocal melody and backing chords. Strip away the fast pace, heavy instrumentation and outrageous costumes and 'Let me entertain you' (by Guy Chambers and Robbie Williams) demonstrates this. The title is the chorus, and the chorus is merely the title repeated 2 or more times with an unchanging backing. I can't say I like this, but it is damned easy and if your message is straightforward, it's an effective way to draw attention to your song - and maybe the other parts of the song allow this simplicity to hang well.

Let Me Entertain You - Chorus 0:38





SCRATCH LYRICS


At this point I need to explain that after the age of about 23, I have mainly written songs with 'scratch lyrics'. This means that, at the composing stage, the meaning of the lyrics has less importance and I don't think about them until later. Paul McCartney of The Beatles famously had the musical and syllabic phrase 'scrambled eggs' that eventually became the song 'Yesterday'.


Yesterday = scrambled eggs












The advantage with this approach is that it produces much better vocal melodies which makes for a better song, but also you sometimes find that your subconscious works on the lyrics. As the musical sound of the song starts to fire synapses in the brain, sometimes words just appear, although usually they can come along later when you are relaxed and not thinking too hard about it.


BUT HOW DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?



What often happens is that one melodic line comes to you - often a series of 6 - 10 notes that have a charm or a nagging insistence that tells you it's a good sequence. I have often come up with such a 'hook' whilst out on a solo bicycle ride; the turning of the pedals creates a rhythmic pulse and inevitably I start to whistle until I come up with something.





THE REPEAT CHORUS


When the phrase seems good, the temptation is to repeat it 2 or 4 times and that makes your chorus. It worked for Robbie Williams and it worked even better for Joy Division, with the same melodic line serving as title, instrumental melody hook and chorus:

Love Will Tear Us Apart - Chorus 0:47



THE REPEAT AND GROW CHORUS


Once your song writing starts to refine a little, the next step is to write a chorus that does not just consist of one repeated catchy line. Most bands use a bit of repetition and then grow from it by changing the phrase slightly.


For example, in this song, Teenage Dirtbag, (by Brendon B Brown), the chorus consists of the same vocal melodic phrase repeated 3 times with different lyrics and then on the fourth line resolves to go into the next verse.


Teenage Dirtbag - Chorus 0:45





CHORUS WITH CHANGED BACKING 


To take this idea further, instead of simply repeating the same phrase in the same way, you can often get a good effect by singing the same vocal melody line but changing the chords beneath it; obviously descending or ascending chords affect the mood of the piece. In 'The A Team' (by Ed Sheeran), the chorus which is sung is largely a 2-note doorbell tune, but the changing chords underneath it create a mood that goes downwards with the progression.

The A Team - Chorus 0:33






THE UPFRONT CHORUS


A trick that the poppiest of pop songs use is to start the song with the chorus; or even a double chorus. It sounds good on the radio; even better riding the Waltzer, and its instant radio-friendliness means that it appeals to those who 'like' music as well as those who 'love' music.

It's My Party - Chorus 0:00






BEYOND SIMPLICITY

If you are interested in the theory of why certain chord progressions sound good, you should take a look at the Seechord website :  http://www.seechord.co.uk/    Joe Samuel from Brighton, UK has worked out a way to map out the chord sequences in songs to investigate how and why they work. 


There are banks of professionally trained experienced songwriters who use the musical intervals and instrumentation that is in vogue to supply the big record companies. They write all the time, and that is probably the way to write a good song. I have a lot of respect for the various teams that have produced popular songs, be it Carole King  in The Hit Factory, or even Stock Aitken & Waterman. Below is a link to an interesting article about how it works nowadays writing material for the likes of Rihanna. A  big deal is made of the songwriting role of 'Top Liners' - the women (usually) who produce the hooks, choruses and vocal melodies to go on top of the male (usually) musicians' backing.


If you write constantly, the difficult part is recognising which of the many songs you write is the good one, because amongst scores of mediocre songs or ideas, there may be just one. Often I would put song ideas in a drawer for a month and then see which would ripen and stay alive after that time.  With a lot of editing work, joining different sections together to make a more interesting structure, you can produce something good and then fly in some wonderful lyrics that fit the musical mood.

SONGWRITING MAGIC


I believe it does exist. It has happened to me and I have heard other songwriters describe it in the same way. Very occasionally, you will sit down to write a song and a song will deliver itself very neatly to you in one dollop; just like a baby into the world. When this is happening, time loses its meaning. It may appear to have happened instantly, but in reality it may have taken hours. Weirdly, songwriters often have a 'pregnancy' feeling for weeks in which you anticipate that there's a song in there but it isn't ready to come out. Sometimes the songwriting magic works as if you are in a showroom; there are amazing songs already written which whizz about ready to be plucked off the shelf and made yours.

But when that does happen, you then  start to worry that you have simply copied an existing song that you have remembered subconsciously. Even now, I hear an old song and think it sounds like one of my old songs and so I have to check when each was written to find out if I have accidentally copied. Once I heard the Green Day song, 'Wake me up when September ends' (by Billy Joe Armstrong) and thought I had copied my song 'Fay' from it. Really it's only the chord sequence, which anybody could have come up with, but I was reassured to find out that my song was written 12 years before the Green Day song.

When September Ends - Chorus 0:45







FINALLY -THE LATE AND GREAT CHORUS


One of my all time favourite songs is Fountain of Sorrow (by Jackson Browne). It has an admirable and complex verse, which allows the song to hold back before giving you the chorus. It's almost 3 minutes of a double verse before you get the chorus. Even then it's a sparse doomy chorus  with an unconventional chord sequence, but then it grows triumphant and uplifting just within the space of the 8 or so lines. It's absolutely masterful songwriting.  It's  not an obvious hit, but, despite the snide aside about the girl in question and the end of tour lack of crispness, I so admire Browne's great craftsmanship and longevity.

Fountain of Sorrow - Chorus 2:50







In the third blog on songwriting, I hope to write more about composing lyrics. Thanks for reading!








4 comments:

  1. I'm sorry about the adverts. Still learning how to put a blog together.....

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  2. Great post, Ruth! Though I'd say the chorus to 'Treasure' beats any of them other songs you mention.

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    1. Thanks for saying that. The chorus to my song 'Treasure' is, in my own words....
      "a vocal melody line that just follows the changes of the chords and is therefore either simple perfection, or more likely, rather dull."
      so I hope that means simple perfection!
      I thought it rather vain to just put my own songs in; maybe in a future blog I will. I did try and put 'Fay' up with the Green Day song for comparison, but couldn't link it successfully.
      Cheers and thanks for commenting!

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    2. Simple perfection is right! It's all in the way you change key as it moves up into the chorus, it seems to lift the whole song…or something.

      One thing I did think of when reading this is that 'Fay' hasn't really got a proper chorus, the refrain is more of a bridge and the main part of the song is like a big chorus, which is maybe why it sort of feels euphoric and melancholy at the same time. Perhaps it's a bit like 'Ain't No Sunshine', which also has a tension building bridge, except 'Fay's loads better (I always preferred 'Lovely Day' myself. Now there's a chorus…).

      I've only found this blog in the last month (the term 'Po!' isn't very search engine friendly), but I've really enjoyed reading through. I do hope you do something musical again, or at least put the albums back out, which would be great. But I'll leave you be now.

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