The Pendulum of Simplicity: Verse/Chorus Songs on the Same Chord Progression

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Last month’s blog post was about verse/chorus songs. Your typical verse/chorus song has different melodies, on different chord progressions. But it can be both fun and instructive to play with the verse/chorus structure on identical chord progressions. That may sound lame, but it isn’t – and actually plenty of modern scripted pop music is built this way, and we’ll get to that in the second part of this blog. But first we will dive into the improv part of things.

Nerd alert for the second part of this blog where we’ll take a look at a (fake, but I hope amusing) history of modern popular music, which explains why and how the use of verses and choruses on the same progression came about (it really did!!!– irrespective of the fake history) and why this is not lame or weird, but actually mainstream in 21th century songwriting. And if it is, why not use this for improvised songs as well?

As an Excercise

The ability to create different melodic lines over a given chord progression is a must for every improv singer. So here is an exercise I kind of like:

  • Tell the students they will get a chord progression, which will not change.
  • Their task is to create at least 2 melodic lines to the progression: one for a chorus and a different one for the verses. See last month’s blog post on how to get to good choruses if needed.
  • Singers are of course free to create different melodic lines for the verses. If one particular line is only used once you might even consider that a bridge. Be it that depending on the group size, you might end up with lots of different bridges and that kind of defeats the purpose of bridges. But we digress. Point is to encourage players to create melody lines that differ from the chorus.
  • You can use the scripted examples below as eye-openers (or ear-openers really) if students are a bit bewildered by the idea.
  • This is also an exercise I do with students solo (that is in one-on-one sessions). Very effective! And in times of pandemic such as today: this can be done over Zoom or Facebook!

In Performance

Originally I used the examples below to introduce the above exercise. But it turns out to work so well that we have been sneaking the technique into performances. Your MD may be a bit snobbish about this (“because this is too simple/boring”) but it is really up to the singers to make this interesting and varied. Practice first, and save the technique until they master it. A couple of caveats:

  • In an exercise setting you can really get away with more than 2 melodic lines (and I would encourage that, exercise-wise). In a performance you probably want to limit to 2 (verse and chorus).
  • Players can get away with a third melodic line (still on the same progression) – that becomes a bridge, on 2 conditions:
    • You do this only once, probably in the second half of the song;
    • Lyrically, you want it to contrast with the verses.

The Pendulum of Simplicity in Popular Music in The Last Two Centuries

Here is a (very tongue in cheek) way of looking at the history of popular music from the 19th to the 21th century.

1860s

Sometime in the late 19th century, song writers got bored with the simplicity of popular music. Or they became snobbish.

So they decided to complicate stuff, to make it more interesting. Or to show off. Instead of limiting to “normal” minor and major chords, they started adding 7ths. And boom, blues music was born.

Roughly around the same time, different kinds of snobs/bored musicians started complexifying things rhythmically, and that gave rise to all sorts of Latin music genres.

1920s

After creating 4000+ songs in a standard 12 bar blues progression, that got boring too, songwriters got even more bored/snobbish and started stacking triads on 7th chords, leading to 9ths, 13ths 9(13)ths and so forth and boom, jazz was born.

Musicians ran out of triads to stack and 4ths to add, so to complicate things further they started playing with rhythms – like they borrowed off blues, now borrowing off Latin music styles. Syncopation and stuff. And bingo we begat bebop.

Audiences swallowed all of that – in the 1940s (big band) jazz was as popular as EMD today.

The Pendulum Swings Back

By the 1950s they heydays of jazz were over. Jazz evolved into stuff too weird/complex for the popular ear. It still evolves BTW: see a 2016 example in the video below. But musical tastes are different now so this is probably not what your average 16 year old 9 (or 50 year old, frankly) would enjoy.

1960s-80s

For mainstream music the pendulum started swinging away from complexity in the 1950 with emergence of rockabilly and rock. Song writers referred to less (and less complicated) chords. Your standard rock song is built on 3 chords, but does use 7ths. And your average 1970 singer/songwriter would still use verses and choruses with different chord progressions. Bridges too for that matter.

Late 1990s

But the pendulum kept swinging towards simplification. In the 90, Indy bands stepped away from different chord progression for verse and chorus, and stuck to 1 chord progression. Bands like SemiSonic built their whole catalog on a structure like Verse & Chorus on same progression + bridge on different progression. Here’s 3 late-90s / early 2000 SemiSonic songs that are roughly Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus structured, and all verses and choruses are over the same progression. The bridge is each time a different progression and those progressions involve a key change form the verse/chorus progression. Listen and admire!

Do not think this was limited to Semisonic (they just happen to be very good at this, IMHO). Here is another year 2000 example: the first hit by Watershed: Indigo Girl – built 98% on the same progression over 4 chords.

Modern Examples

The pendulum has kept swinging and today the use of same chord progression for verse and chorus is not longer reserved for Indy bands. A ton of popular pop music writers do this nowadays, doing away with bridges altogether. Take what was probably the biggest pop music hit of the 2010s:

Luis Fonsi – Despacito

4 chords, that’s all: Bm G D A. No bridge. Massive hit. We rest our case.

Tones & I – Dance Monkey

I am writing this early 2021 and the main recent example I can think of would be Tones & I’s Dance Monkey which was a major worldwide hit (be it not as spectacularly in the USA, compared to other countries).

I just googled “Biggest Hits 2020” worldwide and an amazing percentage of 2020 hits use this technique. Here are about a dozen – there are plenty more but the point is: this is not some obscure or lame technique: anno 2021 this is mainstream in popular music. So why not in your musical improv?

Tate McRae – You Broke Me First 

Banners – Someone To You

Sam Smith – Diamonds

Check out around the 2:50 mark where – on the same progression – Smith really lashes out in the high register. Yummy stuff if you can pull that off as an improviser!

Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike vs Regard – Say My Name

Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande – Rain On Me

Surfaces – Sunday Best

Arizona Zervas – Roxanne

Billie Eilish – Therefore I am

Justin Bieber – Holy ft. Chance The Rapper

Regard – Ride It

The Pendulum Swings Even Further Away From Lyrical Songs

For the sake of nerdiness … the pendulum has swung even farther away. A lot of dance music does not even use chord progressions any more. Instead it becomes droney and sticks to one chord. No more progression at all. And typically you don’t even get lyrics.

This is the Pendulum of Simplicity swung to the extreme. An extreme which is probably less than useful for your improvised singing.

As an example, and to reward you for reading this far, here’s 1.5 hours of (one of my favorites in the genre) Charlotte de Witte aka Raving George, live in 2014. No progressions, solemn promise. And almost no singing (except around the 5 minute mark – you just have to check that out!) Enjoy!

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