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:   



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 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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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


If you are interested in the theory of why certain chord progressions sound good, you should take a look at the Seechord website :    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.


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


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!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Community Arts and How PO! began

I love Community Arts.  It used to be a kind of yogurt-weaving joke; the idea that rough kids from inner city estates would do a bit of circus skills, parachute co-operation games and muck about with old lorry tyres and somehow get civilised. I still think it works. I still think that it's better than doing nothing.

There are half-dead men in their 40s, who grew up in affluent suburbs and never experienced Community Arts. If you grow up with financial stability and success as a default, it must seem weird that anyone would ever want to do those things -  how can making a giant elephant out of old pallets be useful for young people who should be training for jobs?

I guess there's always been bad parenting; there are selfish ones and immature ones and ones that just aren't around enough. But when I was younger, Community Arts filled that gap. There were dens and adventure playgrounds and youth centres, and arts workers who went out on the street to find the kids who might want to learn the bass guitar. This wasn't strict like school, but it was caring, like a home should be and it earnestly conveyed the idea that through arts activities you could become someone better.

Unleash children’s joy, fantasy, and creativity–then they are free, social, and curious children.” – Palle Nielsen


I don't really know what happens in inner cities now; some would have us believe that street gangs pop up to meet those emotional needs and provide activities for young people. I know that there are still many great youth projects, but Community Arts has lost status in our education and social system, and we really need to shout out and protect it.

Carolyn Drury's Community Theatre - still doing it 30 years later
My first encounter with anything like this was a drama group, in Newark, run by Carolyn Drury. I think she was influenced by 1970s  American improvisation group The Player's Workshop. Although I was doing all right at school, I was rather passive and didn't really understand a lot of what was going on around me.

 Drama brought me alive; I could be anyone I wanted to be; I could see the perspective of another person by talking with their tongue. Carolyn's passion for drama was obvious; she showed the teenagers in the group that life is fun and people are free, but that you need to do something worthwhile with that freedom.

In the summer of 1981, I got a holiday job in Camden with Inter-Action. The founder, Ed Berman had set up so many inspiring projects and I was employed on the first ever children's computer camp.

Nowadays, computer camps are often residential affairs for affluent nerdy-types, but then computers were only just evolving as an educational tool. The idea was that kids from the estates would come for free each day and be taught BBC BASIC programming by 19-year old tutors like me. It was a fun job; the children were really motivated and had ideas about what they wanted to do with this amazing new technology. Often they'd tell you about their lives; nothing dreadful, just about mums out at work cleaning and nobody to look after them over the summer.

The BBC B Computer as used at Computer Camp 

On page 14 of the 1988 report on the Inter-Action website, you can see that 200 young people a week used computers once the project became full-time; a project funded by the Department of Education and Science. 

After being in Leicester for a while, writing songs and rehearsing with The Soviets, I joined a course at Fosse Neighbourhood Centre Studios about sound recording. It was run by Multiplex, led by Teri Wyncoll.  I loved the activities and learning about sound engineering, and The Soviets recorded their first cassette release there. We met a few of the key people involved in bands in Leicester at the time and realised that there was a lot of support from the City Council for youth music. This included employment opportunities for musicians to work with younger kids, as well as more professional level training and workshops to develop your band.

Whilst Community Arts implies a collectivism and flexible response to the interests and needs of the community, I don't think it can be successful without clear leadership; it takes an individual or small group who are relentless in their push towards their goal. I know of many true collectives that have fallen apart in petty arguments, or wasted years on internal matters. Meanwhile, the mavericks, the inspired control freaks and the straight-talking action women and men get things done. Teri Wyncoll was such a person. She got things done in the Leicester music scene; courses, gigs, workshops and The Abbey Park festival - a miniature Glastonbury that kept growing and growing until the City Council decided that maybe it should be commercially funded and not come out of the Council Tax.

The Community Arts van takes PO! to play at a festival in Worcester with Hawkwind!

Looking back, Teri's Multiplex was vibrant and full of possibilities. When The Soviets fell apart, it made forming and launching a new band extremely easy as there were gigs, recording facilities and even grants for instruments on offer to young people. However, this doesn't mean to say that Teri was generally admired; in fact her power and influence engendered a huge amount of resentment from many musicians. The thinking was that she had a clique of friends, and 'ordinary decent bands' didn't stand a chance of sharing in the perceived millions of pounds on offer. At the heart of it was that Teri wasn't interested in covers bands, but in promoting original talent that might have a chance in the wider music business. This is why she encouraged us to train kids to play and form bands, but it's also why some 'ordinary decent bands' didn't really get picked to play the high profile gigs.

PO! playing at the Abbey Park Festival 1987

I always liked Teri's warm Geordie manner, her flat full of interesting objects and her determined pro-female outlook. PO! would not have lasted more than a couple of months had it not been for Multiplex and the Leicester music scene at the time.  However, Teri's interests were rooted in a desire for freedom and commercial success rather than dutifully following Council expectations for correct procedures and accountability. By 2002, the scene and funding possibilities had changed so much that Teri moved on to other projects, leaving a trail of unused community recording studios with outdated equipment across the city. After more than half a lifetime of banging on about the music business, Teri and her long-term partner Dave seem to be now pursuing a more peaceful world of  canal narrow boats. However, PO! must be eternally grateful to her for the opportunities and support that we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

In the meantime, another organisation, Soft Touch, has grown to become the main Community Arts organisation in Leicester, funded largely by the Arts Council, but also gaining status as a result of increased schools' music funding . Soft Touch's growth over many years has been controlled, professional and understated; their website shows the admirable work that they do, but it's also full of the policies, evaluations and risk assessments needed for a community organisation to succeed in today's climate. 

It's great that more young people are receiving a short burst of music tuition in schools, and that there are still projects that engage disaffected youth with the arts. However, we need so much more vision, funding and belief in Community Arts. So many people from other nations admire British edgy creative artists; the fashion, film and music industries could generate income to match our defence and chemical industries, if only we had the talent. If only we nurtured the talent....... 

Recent campaign in Leicester against huge City Council cuts to play scheme funding