How to Write a Verse in a Song

The verse is the narrative backbone of your song.

It may not be as catchy or memorable as a chorus, but it still deserves careful attention.

Let’s explore some great ways to approach writing verses.

What is a verse?

In another post, we looked in-depth at the qualities of a verse, and how verses relate to choruses, refrains, and other sections.

For now, let’s just summarize some of the main points about verses:

  • Verses drive the main narrative.
  • Their lyrics change from verse to verse.
  • Their vocal lines are more conversational, with more words and fewer leaps than the chorus.
  • They are more unstable, ending on another chord than the home chord of the song.

This a good start to understanding verses, but keep in mind you can find plenty of exceptions!

How to start a verse

Ok, so now we have a better idea about what makes a verse a verse.

But how do we use this to actually write verses?

This depends on whether you already have a chorus (or refrain) in mind.

Let’s assume for the moment that you are starting from scratch on a new song. You can begin writing a song from many places, and the verse is a perfectly valid choice.

But even starting from the verse leaves us with many options. Let’s look at some:

  • Start with a chord progression
  • Start with a melody
  • Start with lyrics
  • Start with a drum beat
  • Start with a bass line
  • etc.

Yeah, there are always a lot of options when you’re writing music!

We’re going to look at the first three in what follows, and leave the rest for another time.

1. Start with a chord progression

Since we’re assuming this verse is the first part we’re writing, we can write our chord progression in any key or mode.

So where do we begin?

Of course you could write a whole series of posts about chord progressions. But let’s consider a few possibilities:

  • Start from a common progression.
  • Explore random chords until you find a progression you like.
  • Pick a key and experiment with combinations in that key.

Start from a common progression

The first option, starting from a common progression, is pretty straightforward. You play or record a common progression and write your verse melody and lyrics over that. My chord progressions cheat sheet lists a number of them.

Don’t worry about stealing. If you write a unique melody, you’re just doing what musicians do all the time.

Explore random chords until you find a progression you like.

Maybe you’ve already been trying option two, exploring random chords. Many great songs have been written this way, and it has the advantage of relying heavily on your ears. But there are a couple of disadvantages.

It’s much more difficult to find combinations that “work”, which can be discouraging. And you will actually tend to repeat the same habits if you’re not really purposeful about your approach.

Pick a key and experiment with combinations in that key.

Finally, you can start by picking a key or mode and exploring combinations of the chords in that key or mode. The advantage is that you will quickly find combinations that “work”. The disadvantage is that these progressions might not seem as interesting or colorful.

However, if you analyze your favorite songs, you might be surprised at how many of their verses stick to a single key or mode, even when the verses sound unique, colorful, or weird.

It’s a common misunderstanding that interesting music must use complex chord progressions.

2. Start with a melody

There’s no rule that says you have to start a section by writing a chord progression!

Another possibility is to come up with the melody first.

This generally takes two forms: either you come up with the melody on its own (either by singing or playing it out on an instrument) or you come up with the melody and chords together (with the melody driving your choice of chords).

Starting with a bare melody

Wherever you are, you can start singing ideas for melodies. This is a great habit to get into as a songwriter, and will help you build a backlog of ideas. Start with nonsense words if that helps you.

A couple of other ideas: try singing the words from an advertisement you pass by. Or look up some lyrics to a song you don’t know and make up a new melody for those.

You can write your own lyrics to these melodies later.

If you come up with a melody on its own, you’ll then need to arrange the music to support it. You can do this by writing chords that fit, or by layering parts under a vocal recording, etc.

I think this approach can be more challenging when you have less experience. But it’s a skill worth developing.

Probably the biggest advantage to this technique is that you can create and record melodies anywhere you go, as long as you have a recording app on your phone or a dictaphone (or know how to write melodies down).

I’ve also found that it’s sometimes easier to write catchy melodies following this approach.

Writing a melody and chords together

Coming up with the melody and chords together can be a great way to write a song. That’s because your choice of chords will have a purpose (to support the developing melody), which can help you avoid meandering progressions.

It’s still useful to think in keys here to narrow your chord options, but you’ll have to figure out which key your developing melody is in. For a beginner, this might be more difficult than it’s worth. But it’s also a good skill to develop.

However you approach your melody, don’t be afraid to begin with nonsense words and phrases if that helps you explore musical ideas more quickly.

3. Start with lyrics

The last approach to starting a verse we’ll consider is starting with lyrics.

Some songwriters have notebooks full of lyrics for songs that haven’t been written yet.

If you already have lyrics for a verse, then you can experiment with melodies that fit them. You can try singing them without any music until you find something you like. Or you can use them to improvise melodies over a chord progression.

Opportunities for emphasis

Whether you’re starting with lyrics or writing them later, there are a few points worth keeping in mind.

The first and last line of each verse stand out as more significant.

Use the first line to catch the listener’s attention. Sensory details, a striking idea, a contradiction, an emotionally powerful image or thought… there are many ways to do this.

Remember that you can start midway into the story, just as fiction writers often do. In fact, it can be more powerful if the meaning of the first line isn’t entirely clear until it’s qualified by the rest of the verse.

But in this case, it’s still valuable for the effect of the line to be clear. In other words, pose a compelling question or evoke a clear emotional response.

If the listener is just confused, they will be less likely to care.

The last line of a verse is also potentially powerful. It can summarize what came before in a way that deepens or complicates the meaning. Or it can just lead compellingly into the chorus.

Try not to throw away either of these opportunities.

Meaning can also be emphasized by parts of a verse that stand out, whether an interesting note, a borrowed chord, or a lyrical deviation (e.g. a shorter line than expected).

Playing with expectations is one of the most powerful ways to create those moments in a song that hook the listener.

How to improve a verse

As you work out your verse, you’ll eventually get to a place where you’re ready to record your melody, chord progression, and lyrics (whether nonsense words or real ones) together.

This is your first draft.

There are two important things to keep in mind about your first draft:

  1. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even have to be good!
  2. Just because you came up with an idea, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it!

The exclamation points indicate how much these ideas go against our natural inclinations.

On the one side, focusing too much on how good a first draft is can undermine your motivation and stop you from making progress. On the other, getting too attached to your initial ideas can stop you from developing and refining your songs.

Refine your verse by discovering your song’s meaning

One of the best ways to improve your verses is to think of the meaning of your song as something you discover.

Once you have your first draft recorded (and again, it can be very rough), you can listen to your song over and over again. This is your opportunity to pay attention to how the song makes you feel, which images come to mind, and where things just don’t work.

Take notes as you listen.

You can then reflect on these feelings and images, and think more carefully about what story you’re telling.

This can literally be a story or it can be something much more abstract. Either way, it should ideally have a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning hooks us. The middle complicates the beginning. And the end resolves that complication (even if by ending badly!).

Start rewriting your verses so that every line reinforces the core meaning of the song: the feelings, images, and story that you are trying to communicate.

As you refine the lyrics of your verses, ensure that each verse moves us forward. Staying in the same place kills momentum, and makes each return of the chorus or refrain less impactful.

If a line or word feels like it doesn’t add anything, consider replacing it or cutting it altogether.

Don’t get too attached

Leonard Cohen apparently wrote over 80 verses to his popular (and widely covered) song “Hallelujah”. Obviously he couldn’t use them all! So in the end, he had to choose a few that he thought worked best.

Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but it’s a good example of creating distance between yourself and the final version of your song.

Explore a variety of ways to start your verses and refine them. And don’t hold too tightly to your initial ideas.

Even if you do throw away a lot of your ideas, you’ll end up building your skills as a songwriter in the process.

Write better chord progressions.

Chord Progressions Cheatsheet

Quickly get started writing chord progressions, or adding variety to your current approach. Techniques, tables, and sample progressions.

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