How to Write a Chorus with a Catchy Hook
April 24, 2017
Everyone looks forward to the part of the song where they can join in, and even though they've loved every note staved across your verse, they can't wait to reach that crock of chorus gold. In this post for budding songwriters, Joe Hoten from Bands For Hire takes a look at every key aspect of songwriting necessary to create a killer hook for your chorus
As Berry Gordy, Jr put it: 'Don't bore us, get to the chorus.'
We even get the word 'chorus' from the groups of masked performers in Ancient Greek theatre, who would sing and dance in unison as they filled their audiences in on the plot – much in the same way the choruses of today’s musicals do. If you want to release music that makes an impact, this is the effect your chorus should have too – you provide the finer details in the verse, and get everyone singing along to your overarching theme.
So how do we go about that? Let’s break it down.
How to write a chorus fans won't forget
Writing lyrics that bring your killer chorus to justice can be a tough call. You want your chorus lyrics to be both concise and poetic, and also to remind your listeners what your song's all about.
Simplicity is the name of the game when you're drafting up a future stadium anthem for thousands of lighter-wielding fans to sing along to. Just think about how effective Queens's 'We Are the Champions' and 'We Will Rock You' are as sing-alongs – you can't not know the words after a few short minutes of exposure, and they perfectly capture the attitudes built up in the verses. It's hard to not feel victorious after straining your throat proclaiming your victory.
What these killer choruses also show us is: if you’ve got something worth saying, you’ve got something worth saying over and over, so don't be afraid of repeating yourself. As such, the lyrics should also be enjoyable to repeat, so it's prime time to rhyme and also alliterate. 'Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty' trips off the tongue nicely, especially after the tenth recital. The quicker they can pick it up, the quicker they can fall head over heels with it. And remember – you've got to write straight from your heart if you want to win other people's.
You're going to need to set your killer lyrics to an equally killer melody – something your listeners find themselves humming at full volume even at the most inopportune of moments, like when they’re perusing library shelves, or queuing at the bank. The German term for this is ‘ohrwurm’ – literally a tune that figuratively worms its way into your ear. If you’re an early bird, you can catch yourself a fresh earworm that’ll be impossible to dislodge.
Melodies tend to be composed of steps and skips, steps being a semi or whole tone apart, and skips being anything from a third upwards. Think carefully about which words or phrases you want to emphasise and position them accordingly – something you feel profoundly, like a declaration of love, would be best conveyed via a melody leaping from one note to a significant other.
Your chorus may also present you with an opportunity to bust out some new killer chords. Typically, starting on your home note – the tonic – is a clear sign to the listener that they've arrived where they belong. Take 'I Believe in a Thing Called Love'; it's not until the chorus that the Darkness shed some light on what key we’re in – up until then, we've been wondering around in F#'s shadow. But at the far end of the bridge sits an illuminating beacon, a solid B, setting us up for a perfect cadence. And payoff doesn't get much more perfect than rhapsodic repetition of the song's title – and central theme – over a brand new progression in the home key. We made it!
Alternatively, many fantastic choruses use the same chord pattern as the verse. 'Don't Look Back in Anger' is a classic example – though the key difference between the sections is that the melody's sung in a higher register. The verses begin on a major third, but in the chorus this is ramped up to a powerful fifth, drifting from side to side down an entire octave. If it needs to be sung higher and louder than the verse, your chorus is going to pack an almighty punch in comparison.
A popular device with songwriters is the ‘hook’ – something that anchors itself into your listeners’ memories, digging deeper every time they hear it. A hook can be lyrical, melodic, rhythmic – anything that gets under the skin and refuses to leave. So load up your hook with a tasty earworm – something along the lines of the 'Yeah, yeah, yeah' that follows 'She Loves You', or the keyboard part in 'The Final Countdown' – and wait for the fans to bite.
It's also worth considering giving your chorus a rhythm that is distinct from what you've got going on in the verse. Giving your chorus an unusual – or better still, unique – rhythm will affect your listeners through more than their mere ears. Kasabian's 'Fire' plays with this, shuffling its way quietly through each verse only to pound your eardrums with its four-to-the-floor chorus. Don't forget – your chorus is the part that brings people together through singing and dancing, so let their whole bodies know what time it is.
It's time to decide how you're going to present your chorus. How's it going to fit into your song? Do you build up to it slowly, or dive in straight away? Both are valid options, but upping the anticipation is always an effective way of making your chorus feel like an enormous pay off.
Leave your listeners treading the pre-chorus waters for a little longer, then wash them away with your tidal wave. Consider the ‘we gotta hold on to what we’ve got’ before the ‘whooooooaah we’re half way there’, and the ‘it’s alright, it’s ok’ before the ‘whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother, you’re stayin’ alive' – it’s like waiting for ten unsuspecting pins to be struck down with a bowling ball.
Instrumentation and Dynamics
Maximum impact is required here, so you’re going to want to hold back before bringing out the big guns. High volume and intensity is what’ll get your audience going, but be careful not to underestimate the quiet or even silence – when you do crank it up, it’ll be like slapping your audience round the face with an iron gauntlet. Have parts drop in and drop out. It’s all association – ‘hey, I love that part where the strings come in’ or ‘wait for it… wait for it… NOW'S THE CHORUS'. 'Woo hoo' is an sensible response to the thunderous bass and deafening guitars cutting back in for the chorus of 'Song 2', not to mention a killer hook.
Now you've got all the tools you need to build yourself an absolute powerhouse of a chorus. You're ready to tell the people what you mean, and the people will be able to tell you mean it. You've sharpened your hooks and the earworms are hungry. The world is at your feet, waiting for you to unite it in song. Knock 'em dead!
How do you go about writing a chorus for your tracks? Got any tips for other artists out there? Let us know in the comments below and share this advice with your fellow musicians.
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