3 Ways to Write A Perfect Chorus
by Alec Plowman
Great choruses stay with you for a lifetime.
They’re the ones that you find earworming in the small hours when you can’t get to sleep; the ones you hum on the way to work and the ones that you’ll still be singing years after the song itself has faded from the charts.
But how do you write a truly great chorus; one with all the qualities I mentioned above?
As with many things in songwriting, there’s no hard and fast rule to crafting an iconic chorus. But, there are some practices that you should observe to get you on the right track. Today I’m running through my three golden rules for writing a great chorus. If you’re struggling to find that hook for your song, then heed these words.
Make it stand out
Want to know the surefire way for your chorus NOT to land? Making it too similar to the verse.
Choruses should lift your song into the stratosphere. If your verse is buildup, then your chorus the explosion of emotion, of feeling; it’s where the emotional catharsis is.
If you want a prime example of this dynamic at work, check out pretty much any song by Nirvana. Rock music famously has a loud/quiet exchange when it comes to verses and choruses, but Kurt Cobain and co. pushed this to the extreme.
Listen, for example, to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Notice how hard those choruses – with their huge drums, distorted guitars, and screaming vocals – hit in contrast to the simmering yet restrained verses.
Of course, your choruses don’t necessarily have to be loud; they just have to be different. Metallica inverted the loud/quiet convention to masterful effect on their 1991 single “Unforgiven”, where the huge, stadium filling verses give way to a subtler, Spanish guitar-infused chorus.
Inverting the formula in this way makes the chorus stand out because it catches the listener off-guard. As such, it grabs their attention, making sure that the hook starts earworming. Speaking of which…
Milk your hook
Your song lives or dies by the killer line, chord progression or melody that anchors the chorus. It’s the element that gets a song stuck in the listener’s head, bringing them back for repeat listens. Underuse it, and you run the risk of losing their interest.
If you’ve got an epic chorus, then don’t be afraid to milk it for all it’s worth. After all, you’ve come up with a banger, and people deserve to hear it.
If you are worried that your chorus repetitions are getting overkill, then don’t reach for the scissors just yet. See if you can work variations in that sustain the life of your MVP. I’ve always been partial to a quiet, pulled back chorus before the final one kicks in, just to hammer home that hook once again at the end.
And, while they’re not always easy to pull off, a well-placed truck-driver’s gear-shift (a dramatic key change upwards at the end of a song) can really push a track into the stratosphere. Just ask Jon Bon Jovi:
Keep the Words Simple
When it comes to writing lyrics, the verses are where you deal with the specific meanings of the song. There, you can get as detailed as you like. But, when the chorus comes in, cerebralism should give way to feeling.
If you’re reaching for the thesaurus when crafting your big hook, you’re setting yourself up for a fall. When writing the chorus, you need to think big words, simple phrases – the kind of thing you can imagine being chanted at a Football stadium.
Neil Young knows a thing or two about simple, but effective choruses, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” is probably his best example. While the verses are unashamedly wordy, with targeted political references throughout, the “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World” repeated in the chorus is laser targeted for sing-along potential. It’s the simplicity and repeatability of those words that make the song a stone-cold classic.
What’s your favourite chorus of all time? And what rules do you abide by when writing them?