When it comes to popular music, you’ll rarely hear a song without a verse.
The best verses draw in the listener, drive the song forward, and give meaning to the chorus or refrain.
Let’s explore what makes a verse a verse! Understanding the details will help you improve your own songwriting.
So, what is a verse?
A verse is a section of a song that moves the narrative forward. It repeats musically, but the lyrics normally differ from verse to verse (unlike a refrain or chorus). The verse often comes first, and sets a pattern that other sections contrast with.
There are three common popular song forms that contain a verse: verse/chorus, verse/refrain, and verses all the way through. Let’s look at each.
The most common song form in popular music after the 60s is the verse/chorus form (with or without a pre-chorus, which comes between verse and chorus).
This form normally begins with one or two verses. From there, verse and chorus alternate, though there are a number of variations on this (depending on whether there are pre-choruses, bridges, instrumental sections, etc.).
The chorus is normally where the central idea and/or title of the song is stated (and repeated throughout the song). Verses provide the context for the chorus.
A variation that was more common up to the 60s is the verse/refrain form. In this form, each verse leads up to a refrain, often the title of the song. The refrain is a kind of payoff that deepens with every repeat.
The refrain often feels like a moment of closure, and frequently resolves to the tonic (home) chord. A famous example is “Blowin' in the Wind” by Bob Dylan.
Verses all the way through
An even older form uses verses all the way through. This is effectively a story in song form.
Lyrical repetition can still be used in this form, and often the power of this repetition comes from an earlier verse taking on greater meaning when heard after the story has developed further. The most straightforward version of this is to start and end the song with the same verse.
You can find the all-verse form in many old folks songs. “The House of the Rising Sun” is one example.
Qualities of a verse
If you want to identify the first verse in a song, there a few common giveaways:
- Prominent voice, without backup vocals
- Lower energy
- Few instruments playing (thinner texture)
- Lower vocal range
A second or third verse will often have a thicker texture and higher energy than the first, but then normally the next chorus would be ramped up as well.
It’s likely you already recognize most of this intuitively, just from listening to so many songs.
Perhaps less obvious is the fact that verses tend to more closely resemble speaking. This can be because of a lower and more constrained vocal range. But it also comes from longer lines, with more syllables and words per line.
This is related to the “storytelling” aspect of verses. At the extreme, a verse can literally be spoken, though this is of course not the norm.
Also related is the fact that verse lyrics are normally heavier on sensory details (and just details in general). A chorus or refrain, on the other hand, will often state an idea succinctly.
Part of the catchiness of a chorus comes from how easy it is to remember. You probably know the lyrics to a lot of choruses off the top of your head.
I’m guessing you don’t know nearly as many verses.
Verses are often unresolved
Although you can start a verse on any chord in a key, it’s not uncommon for it to start on the I (the tonic or home chord). However, if the verse leads directly to a chorus or refrain, it is uncommon for it to end on the I.
This is because verses normally have an unresolved quality.
Think of how verses pull you toward the chorus, and how they don’t feel complete in themselves. They move forward, sometimes subtly, sometimes relentlessly.
There are numerous ways to create that unresolved feeling. Focusing on chord progressions, some of the most common ways are to end on the V, IV, or bVII chords.
Each of these can create a different kind of tension and pull toward resolution.
The situation can be different if the song has a pre-chorus. In this case, verses sometimes have a more resolved quality (like a complete thought), and it is the pre-chorus that builds tension and drives us toward the chorus.
Like everything in music, none of the things we’re discussing here are true of every song.
Verses can establish a sense of home or they can just hint at it
Not every song has an unambigious home chord or key, but many do.
Verses can start on this chord, or emphasize it, even as they end somewhere else. This sets up our expectations for the rest of the song.
But they can also only hint at this sense of home, leaving it to the chorus to let us know unambiguously.
Of course, our sense of home can also shift much more radically from verse to chorus.
Progression changes from verse to chorus
There are many possibilities for how to shift from a verse to a chorus, but here are some of the main options:
- Verse and chorus share the same chord progression
- Verse and chorus are in the same key/mode. The verse starts on the same chord as the chorus, but the verse progression is more unresolved than the chorus.
- Verse and chorus are in the same key/mode, but the verse starts on a different chord than the chorus.
- Verse is in one mode and chorus is in a relative mode. For example, the verse is in A minor (Aeolian) and the chorus is in C major (Ionian). These share the same notes but emphasize a different home note.
- Verse is in one mode and chorus is in a parallel mode. For example, the verse is in D minor (Aeolian) and the chorus in D major (Ionian). These are different collections of notes but have the same home note.
- Verse is in one key and chorus is in a different key. For example, the verse is in G major and the chorus is in B major. This is called a “modulation”.
Generally speaking, as we move down this list, the difference between verse and chorus will be more pronounced or colorful or moody (or insert your adjective here).
There will also likely be a stronger sense of “distance” between the two, whether musical, narrative, emotional, or whatever.
You can use this understanding to better control the effect of your song. Or just to explore the possibilities.
Understanding how verses work can help you write better songs
Understanding the common qualities of a verse is helpful for songwriters in at least two ways.
First, by understanding what happens in other songs, you have a larger set of options to choose from when writing your own verses.
Second, by understanding what’s common, you can purposefully play with and break those expectations.
I recommend making a list of songs you find interesting. Listen carefully to these songs and note any patterns in the verses. If you think a song is breaking with conventions, note that down too.
Use these observations to generate ideas for practicing songwriting.
It won’t be long before you’re coming up with more interesting verses of your own.