Improvized Verse/Chorus Songs

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The most common song structure – be that improvised or scripted songs – is probably verse/chorus. In this blog post you’ll find some musings about improvising verse/chorus songs, both for singers as well as for musical directors.

Definition

A verse-chorus form is a song structure built around two repeating sections: a verse section and a chorus section. The chorus contains the song’s signature melodic motifs along with lyrics that tend to be the same throughout the tune. The verse sections are interpolated between the choruses (chorii?). They typically feature similar melodies and chord progressions on each repetition, but their lyrics tend to vary on every pass. Chord progressions for chorus and verse are usually different (but not always – see next month’s blog post on the Pendulum of Simplicity).

The Chorus

A chorus has a big advantage: it’s always the same. So once it has been established, every player knows the chorus and hence it can be sung together. That makes it ideal for group songs.

Another advantage is that, if a player runs out of ideas or inspiration, there is always the chorus to turn to.

A final advantage is that, if we all know the chorus, we also know how the song will most likely end – it will (probably) end on the last word of the last line of the chorus!

Since having a chorus provides as sense of comfort (in the sense that you always know what you can sing and you can do it together), it’s a good idea to establish your chorus early.

How to Make a Chorus

A chorus has to be lyrically easy enough so you (and your fellow players) can remember it. Bonus: if your chorus is really simple the whole audience might sing it along with you: goosebumps!

The chorus lyrics need to be simple, otherwise you’ll never remember them. A great way to simplify your lyrics and make them ‘memorizable’ is to use lots of repetition. The simplest structure is where your chorus is basically your song title, repeated several times. That works, but tends to be a bit boring. Here are some other options:

  • Title line, Title line, Alternate line that rhymes on title line, Title line. (T T A T).
  • Title line, Alternate line 1, Title line, Alternate line 2 which rhymes with alternate line 1 ( T A T B).
  • Title line, Title line, Title line, unrelated line. (T T T A). Your A line may or may not rhyme to the title line. Or your A line may be a slight variation on the title line. Example of the latter:
    • Baby I’m your man
    • Baby I’m your man
    • Baby I’m your man
    • Yes your man

Note that the use of “title” in the above is a bit of chicken and egg: if there is a line you repeat once or twice in your chorus, the audience will automatically consider that to be your song title; and vice versa, if you choose to title your song before you sing it, you will probably want to repeat that title in your chorus.

Verses

Whereas your chorus should be simple, in your verses you can do more complex lyrics and your verses will all be different. Anything goes, really.

Structure

The simplest structure is a binary one, in which verses and chorus alternate. Either starting with the chorus, or starting with a verse: C V C V C or V C V C V C. In scripted songs this is widely used in hiphop, country, bluegrass. In lots of hiphop songs the chorus might be sung and the verses rapped. Think Stan by Eminem.

Another often-used approach in scripted songs is double verses, as in V V C V. Often used in Broadway songs. Best known example is probably Yesterday by the Beatles.

And lastly, some scripted songs add and additional thingy called a bridge. A bridge is a section that is intentionally distinct from the rest of the song. It typically has a different chord progression, different tonality (for instance, minor instead of major), different key or even meter. The idea is variety to the song and lyrically bridges offer a different point of view or energy, compared to the verses. Structure is V C V C B C (or C V C V C B C) – so bridges “bridge” 2 choruses. In most cases the bridge features only once.

Example would be country roads by John Denver: the bridge is the part that starts with “I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me‘.

Ending on the Chorus

A particular way to end things might be to sing the chorus twice (or even more often) and end with a retard (that is, music and singing slows down to a big long last note).

Modulating at the end

A bit cheesy – and you probably can get away with it just once in a performance – is to do an encore of the chorus, after the sons has ended, but modulated a semitone or full tone up. Or modulate up when you repeat the ending chorus.

The former is easier, and the musical director can set it in. The latter is more tricky, and everybody needs to be in the same place at the same time – so that is something you may want to agree on as a group in rehearsal. Which leads us nicely to the next section.

Prescriptive vs organic

The above is all good & well, but how does one go about improvising verse/chorus structures? Who should make the chorus? Who decides the chorus is good enough and how does one prevent one singer making a chorus (in their minds) only to have the next singer propose a different chorus? There are 2 schools of thought: prescriptive and organic.

Prescriptive

The prescriptive school sets “rules”, or set structures. Here are some examples:

  • Agree which songs will be verse/chorus songs and which not. Perhaps agree that opening song and closing song will always be verse/chorus.
  • Agree who will make the chorus.
  • Agree on the verse/chorus progression. Perhaps agree that the chorus will be created first (or agree that the song will start with a verse, the chorus following that).
  • Agree on the whole length of the songs; agree to always do double verses (or not).

Main advantage is that doing things this way, everything is clear to both singers and musicians. For the musicians, this makes it very easy to choose different chord progressions for verse and chorus (as they know exactly which is going to be which).

Organic

The alternative is not to agree on anything structurally, and let things appear organically. You’d still have some “rules” be it less strict. E.g. “whoever makes chorus, sing it twice to signal to group and musician that this is the chorus”. A flipside is that over the course of a 1+ hour performance, you may never get to verse/chorus song – for whatever reason, like lack of good chorus to appear, lack of focus by players and/or musician and what-not.

For the musicians this is also a bit tricky – and it often leads to the same chord progression (and hence same melody line) used for both verses and choruses. Here is a tip to avoid that as Musical Director:

  • Pick a progression and stick with that until you hear a chorus being established. (some times that my not be until you hear a player re-sing what had been sung before).
  • After that, change to a new progression for all remaining verses.
  • That has the disadvantage that any verses sung before the establishment of the chorus, had the same progression and perhaps melodic line as the chorus, but it has the advantage that at least any subsequent verses are different.

Prescriptive or Organic?

So which school is better or which should you follow. You choose:

  • The prescriptive way takes more time: you need to rehearse it until you can apply the structure without getting in your head. If well rehearsed it leads to very slick, impressive performances. A flipside is that if you work with players you have never worked before, the structure habits they are used to might be different, and if you don’t discuss this prior to performance, it can lead to confusion and shipwreck. A final disadvantage is that if a player breaks the pre-set structure , everyone else may feel “lost”.
  • To some (myself included) organic “feels” more like improv. To some in the prescriptive school, organic equals “too lazy to rehearse a structure”. The organic way is often more messy, less slick. Players trained to do things organically have the advantage that they cannot get lost when someone screws up (because there is no preset structure to screw up in the first place) and they should be able to find their way with another singer and musicians comfortable with going organic.

Personally, I believe in a healthy mix of both: it is interesting for players to be aware of (potential) structures, whether they choose to use them (or whether these organically appear) or not. As long as the performance touches the audience, I am more than happy.

Feel free to chime in with your thoughts!

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