Writing a great chorus that sticks in your ear and makes you want to sing is a real challenge. It can often seem that finding the right melody, the right chords, the right arrangement, or whatever other parts amounts to pure inspirational magic. But there are real, concrete things you can do to improve your creative output and find strong musical ideas to write a great chorus. Here are a few of them.
The power of a musical motif cannot be overstated. Motifs are short musical ideas used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, grooves, and just about anything else foundational to a song. They are usually short and can be strung together or manipulated in many ways to create a strong, cohesive sound that stays interesting.
Motifs can be incredibly simple (and a lot of times it’s the simple ones that really stick in our heads). One of my all time favorite motifs is the guitar part for I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. It uses only one pitch and the same rhythm for the entire song, but it is one of the strongest guitar parts I’ve ever heard in a pop or dance tune. It creates an incredibly strong rhythmic foundation for just about everything else in the song.
Next time you’re working on a chorus, try to simplify it down and think about the motifs you’re using. Then, try modifying or making small changes those motifs in a later chorus. This helps create a lot of interest and keeps the song from feeling too monotonous while still maintaining that strong hook.
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Another really useful theory concept that will help you write a great chorus is the concept of a sequence. Sequences are ways to take a particular motif or set of chords and transpose them in such a way that they stay recognizable but become more interesting and sound more inevitable.
There are two main types of sequences: harmonic and motivic. Harmonic sequences are made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern. Motivic sequences are made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using specific interval pattern.
Two great examples of both of these concepts are Pachelbel’s Canon in D and Shakira’s Hips Don’t Lie. Canon in D uses a harmonic sequence that follows an interval pattern: down by a 4th, up by a 2nd (D to A, B- to E-, etc.). Hips Don’t Lie uses the same harmonic sequence but in a minor key. In both pieces of music, the motivic sequence follows the harmonic sequence. So every time the harmonic sequence repeats, so does the motif. You can hear this in the violin part in Pachelbel’s Canon and in the trumpet part in Hips Don’t Lie.
Sequences have a lot of power because they create strong expectations in the listener’s ear about what the next chord or line should come next. You can then use this to make the song feel inevitable or thwart that expectation to add tension.
Form and Repetition
Once you have built a strong set of motifs and potentially used some harmonic or motivic sequences, the ways you use form and repetition can play a huge role as you write a great chorus. There are a couple ways to do this.
First, if you want the chorus to stick, you need to make it the focus of your song. Many pop songs get to the chorus in 60 seconds or less (I Want You Back hits the chords a mere forty-five seconds into the song). It also helps a lot to write the hook (and sometimes the verses) of the song over the same chords and groove as the chorus.
Second, use a song form that repeats the chorus a lot. If you have too many sections other than the chorus, the power you want to the chorus to have may start to disappear.
A common starting point for pop song form is:
Remember that the hook (and often the verse) is often made of many of the same elements as the chorus.
There are many more ways that theory can help you understand what makes great music work and help you write some of it yourself. If you would like to explore this further, consider checking out the online music theory course I developed with Dave Kusek called HIT Music Theory (www.hitmusictheory.com). In this course, I go into much greater detail about theory and how it has been used from a wide variety of today’s hit songs. The course covers a lot of college level theory in a practical and applicable way using diverse music from Rihanna to the Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash and much more.
By Daniel Roberts