Most popular songs have a repeating section that’s at the center of everything.
It’s memorable and it’s catchy. And listeners often can’t wait for it to arrive.
Of course we’re talking about the chorus.
Introducing the chorus
The chorus is the section that repeats the title or central idea of the song. It’s normally catchy, energetic, and relatively simple.
Starting in the 1960s, the verse/chorus song form started to become the most common structure in popular music. Before that, it was more common for songs to feature a “refrain”, which is a short statement of the title or main idea of the song.
In the verse/refrain form, each verse effectively ends on the refrain, frequently the title of the song, which acts as a kind of payoff.
The chorus took some of the qualities of the refrain and transformed them into an independent section.
This section is the part that “everybody sings”. This helps explain why it’s called the “chorus”. On one hand, most of the band often sings along on this part, commonly providing vocal harmonies. On the other hand, everyone listening in the car (or wherever) tends to sing along as well.
Although there are many variations, a simple verse/chorus (V/C) structure looks like this:
V1 - V2 - C - V3 - C - C
The chorus is memorable
If the verse tells the story of the song, the chorus sums it up, expressing the central idea through a memorable melody and simple lyrics.
The chorus is the part listeners anticipate. It’s also the part they’re most likely to remember.
What makes a chorus memorable? The catchiness of the melody, the simplicity and impact of the lyrics, and the higher energy all play a part.
The vocal range is normally both wider and higher in a chorus, which raises the energy. And the texture is normally thicker, with more voices and instruments, which reinforces the importance of the part.
Compared to the verse, there are often fewer words and a slower melodic rhythm. But underneath, the chords often change faster, increasing the urgency and harmonic color of the section.
The chorus is the target of the song
You can think of a standard chorus as doing everything possible to focus our attention on a single idea or feeling.
Choruses often feature the title line, and frequently include lyrical repetition as well.
In a way, the chorus is the “target” of the song. The harmonies and melodies are commonly more stable in a chorus than in a verse. And the other sections lead up to it, building tension and instability along the way.
When we get to the chorus, we feel like we’ve arrived.
The chorus (normally) contains the tonic chord
A chorus might start on the “tonic” or home chord of the song. But either way, it will often end on the tonic.
In fact, looking at the last chord in the chorus is a quick (though imperfect) way to check what key the song is in.
That last tonic is also frequently part of a “cadence”, a sequence of chords that creates a sense of resolution. Common cadence chords preceding the tonic are V, IV, or bVII, among others.
One interesting thing to look for is a strong V-I cadence on the title line. This common move gives that line a sense of importance and centrality.
Digging a little deeper
We’ve seen that choruses often feature fewer notes but more chords than the verse. In verses, there is more space to explore each chord, which also means that verse melodies often include more non-chord tones (notes that aren’t in the underlying chord).
Chorus melodies tend to stick to chord tones. But when the chords change faster, this can still support interesting or surprising melodies as a whole.
Nevertheless, it’s probably easier to remember and sing along with chord tones.
Chorus melodies also often include more leaps in melody. Verses are more conversational in character.
The leaps in choruses raise the energy, outline the harmonies, and perhaps create a stronger desire to sing on the part of the listener!
There are always exceptions
I’ll end on my standard caveat: generalizations in music never hold universally.
You can definitely find choruses with fewer chords than verses, or more notes per line, or even a thinner texture. But if a “chorus” featured none of the qualities described here, odds are it would sound like some other kind of section!
One way or the other, a good chorus normally hooks the listener and presents the core idea of the song in a memorable way. And the other parts tend to play supporting roles.
If you’d like to explore how to write a chorus, you can start here.