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How to write a chorus

By BBC Maestro

Music
Last updated: 01 August 2022

We all get a song stuck in our heads from time to time. It might be a jazzy hook or a crafty lyric that pulls you in, but in many cases, it’s the work of a great chorus. 

In this article, we’ll share some tips on how to write a chorus for your very own song, leaning on the advice of Take That songwriter, Gary Barlow, and Grammy-winning music producer, Mark Ronson.

What is a chorus in music?

“The chorus is really the most important part of a song,” says Gary Barlow in his BBC Maestro songwriting course. “It’s the bit that’s meant to leave people wanting more, it’s the bit they can’t stop singing… and as songwriters, that’s what we want to hear,” he says.

The chorus is usually easy to recognise in a song because it’s repeated a few times throughout the whole piece. It should stand out from the verses. In many cases, a chorus may be more energetic or lively in melody and faster in pace than the verses of the piece. The transition between verse and chorus can be a bit jarring, so many musicians choose to add a bridge between the two to build momentum or evoke a certain feeling from the listener before they hear the chorus.

For example, listen to Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You and notice the softness of the first chorus compared to the grand lead-up to the final chorus. As listeners get closer to that final chorus, it’s the elongation of the bridge that lets them know that something big is coming. And from this same example, you can see that some choruses change in key and volume throughout a song too. You can find this frequently in the final choruses of songs about passion, triumph, or anger.

Choruses are also known to house the main musical and lyrical motifs of a song, which are repeated throughout a song, making it more likely to become stuck in listeners’ heads. Think about the choruses of famous ‘earworms’ (a song that our minds can’t shake) - Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ or Queen’s We Will Rock You - these both have distinct motifs at the heart of them. And whether you’re creating a rap, pop or love song, making an unforgettable song is what many songwriters dream to achieve.

How to write a chorus?

The songwriting process is different for everyone. For some, writing lyrics comes naturally, and it can make sense to start from the intro and the first verse, and then work your way through to your bridge, chorus, other verses and ending. But for those more melodically inclined, jumping straight into the chorus can be a great way to start your song.

“More often than not I go to the chorus first,” says Gary Barlow in his online songwriting course. At the start of his approach to creating a song’s chorus, he aims to get the title of the song in the lyrics (if there is one) and tries to do “something clever melodically,” he says, to help build a bit of momentum.

 

A song sheet

The melody

You may already have a hook or melody in mind that you think would sit perfectly in your chorus. But in the case that you don’t, having a play around on your instrument or with your music production tool of choice is a great way to start.

“A way that a lot of people start songs, is to just play some chords,” says Gary Barlow. To tackle the melody first, start by experimenting with different progressions to find your main chords. Progressions are a sequence of chords that are played one after the other and are usually repeated throughout the song in a chorus or a bridge.  

Usually, a chorus is made up of 4 or more chords. As you play around, take note of which chords evoke something in you. “Just something that makes you emotional, something that makes you feel inspired to go ‘OK what can I add to this?’” says Gary Barlow.

Mark Ronson’s advice? Ensure that the key of your chorus can accommodate the singer before you start falling in love with a phrase that you can’t use. If you’re working with production tools, it’s possible to tweak the key of either the singer or the melody, but not all singers like to be auto-tuned.

“No matter how great your track is, the thing that's going to make the song the best is how that singer sounds over it,” says Mark Ronson in his BBC Maestro music production course. So whatever key your melody is in, it’s good to ensure that it’s in the best key for the singer, or that you have the permission and tools to tweak it to their liking.

If you’re playing it over and over, you might have already hummed along with the odd word or phrase to test it out – so you’ll know if it works for your voice. If you’re using another singer, study their previous work to discover their vocal range before you approach them with your melody.

In most instances, you will know when you have found the right mix of chords because you’ll be hungry to keep playing them and find the right words to bring them to life.

A blank sheet of paper and a pair of headphones

Adding the lyrics

You might know exactly what your song should be about after you’ve created the melody of your chorus. It may evoke feelings in you of longing and sadness or vigour and happiness, or it will fit somewhere on the spectrum between the two. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words, particularly if you don’t know the concept of your song yet.

We know that a hit song strikes something in its listeners. Whether that’s an emotion or experience, it’s a connection that your audience builds with you as they listen to your song. When it comes to deciding what to write about and the lyrics you use, songwriter Jon Bellion tells Mark Ronson that he chooses to speak from the heart about real life. He aims to capture those “universal truths that people can relate to and resonate with,” in his evocative lyrics, which many credit as part of his success.

But finding the right words for lyrics can be a little challenging. Something Gary Barlow does to awaken his creative flow is to turn to a thesaurus to spark inspiration. He searches for an emotion he wants to write about to find a key word that can inspire the song.  

In his lesson on constructing a song, he explores the word ‘happy’ and finds ‘cheerful, contented, decided, delighted’ in his results. “Decided is a good word,” he says. “’Now I’ve decided” - where does that lead us?’” he contemplates. He explores whether the ‘decision’ at hand could be about a relationship or about making a change elsewhere in your life.

He goes on to create a four-line verse that has chorus potential but doesn’t devote it to either part of the song yet. “So often I’ve written a song around a chorus, and I’ve gone ‘ah actually, that chorus isn’t quite as good (anymore),’ so then I write a new one,” he says.

He encourages budding songwriters to be flexible in their approach to writing the chorus and suggests having a laptop or notepad nearby so you can jot down new ideas or rework old ones easily. Experiment with different lines. Do you want your chorus to rhyme? Or do you want each line to flow smoothly into the next? The best way to find your lyrics is to test them with your melody - and keep testing them. “Suddenly, the mosaic, the jigsaw, starts to work together,” says Gary Barlow, describing the process.

A person plays the guitar

Your hook

Every good chorus has a powerful hook. A hook invites the listener in and, if done well, makes it impossible for them to tune out of what’s to come.

Think about the lead-up to the chorus in Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline or Britney Spears’ Toxic. These are both examples of memorable hooks that will lead many of us into singing their choruses. Can you play around with your melody to make it more catchy or dramatic?

This is a step to revisit once you’ve created the whole song too, to make sure it works with your verses and overall structure. Mark Ronson recommends exploring whether there are any “extra elements, maybe some extra hooks [or] ear candy,” you can add to your chorus at this stage.

Finding that perfect hook can also be a useful motivator when writing the rest of the song. “If I know I’ve got this amazing 8-bar hook, I’m confident and inspired to finish it now,” says Gary Barlow. So, “use it as a lure to get you in and think, ‘Right, how do I make the rest of this as amazing?’  It takes a while to get that ‘magic’ thing,” says Gary Barlow, but it will come.

Writing a good chorus is all about adopting a playful approach to music-making. Your chorus is the foundation for the rest of the song to sit on. So once you’ve got it, you’re ready to move on to crafting the rest of the song. It’s likely that throughout the process you will need to revisit the above points every time something new changes. That’s normal. Keep an open mind and you may just be one step closer to creating a chart-topping single. If you want to learn more about music, why not explore Gary Barlow’s Songwriting course or Mark Ronson’s on Music Production?

A collection of BBC Maestri including Julia Donaldson, Alan Moore and Edgar Wright displayed alongside some gift boxes with orange bows

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