While elements like prechoruses, bridges, post-choruses, codas, and other structural components of songwriting are less common, 99% of songs in popular music have adhered to a verse chorus structure since recorded music became a thing. Let’s compare verse vs chorus both in songwriting and mixing and how the two work off of and need one another.
Verse Vs Chorus
Let’s go in the order they would appear in most songs in comparing verse vs chorus and begin by discussing the verse of a song first in terms of music, lyrics, and in mixing terms, as well.
The verse of the song is the section of the song which works to flow into or set up the chorus. The energy is lower, the lyrics are less memorable, and the verse itself serves to build anticipation for the chorus.
Musically, the verse is lower stakes and lower energy. This works to contrast with the chorus melody which we’ll talk more about later, but you can get away with a more complex melody in the verses.
The vocal melody should actually be more complex with more chords being used. Incidentally oftentimes the more interesting melody or progression can be found in a song’s verse, but it’s the complexity which keeps it from being as memorable as that chorus.
I’ll be using this phrase quite a bit when comparing verse vs chorus, but this is by design.
In my comprehensive guide on how to write a song, I talk about one technique which I refer to as “garbage to gold”. It involves intentionally writing a throwaway and forgettable verse melody in order to make the same song’s chorus seem that much better or catchier.
It’s a subconscious thing for the listener, but they can pick up on that contrast which will make a catchy chorus melody that much more refreshing after coming out of the context of a lackluster or forgettable melody.
I like to reference Carly Rae Jepsen’s smash hit “Call Me Maybe” as an example of a song which has a forgettable verse melody before transitioning into one of the most well known choruses of the last 20 years.
If you stop a random person on the street, they likely can’t hum the verse melody but they can definitely sing every word of that chorus. You could have written any verse for that song and it still would’ve been just as big based on the strength of that chorus.
You can think of the lyrics in the verse as the support for your greater argument/message, or the evidence for what you’re asserting in the chorus.
The lyrics in the verse make that chorus “argument” more impactful because you’ve provided context to build up to that statement that you’re making in the chorus.
Just like the verse works musically, lyrically you can have wordier and more elaborate string of phrases and words. But once again, the lyrics here aren’t what stick with the listener, but they establish the credibility and work like the music of the verse to make that chorus all the more impactful.
The verse has been building anticipation and setting the table for a (hopefully) big chorus.
When we think about the chorus, particularly in pop music, we typically think about the hook.
A hook is any catchy melody in a song (see hook vs chorus). While it can be delivered via an instrument, like a guitar or synth or piano riff, it’s usually the vocal melody that’s delivering the hook.
Some of the biggest and most popular songs of all time feature the simplest melodies on the chorus.
One of the biggest songs of the early 2000’s, Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” is a prime example of this:
Who can’t remember or (help but) sing the this simple held out two note chorus?
It’s that simplicity which drills into our minds and makes a song easier to take hold and get stuck in our heads. The more accessible this hook is to as many people as possible, the bigger the song has the potential to be.
Unlike the verse where we have more time and words themselves to encapsulate our message, the lyrics of the chorus are designed to be simple.
The simpler the message, the easier it is to digest and the more memorable it becomes. In the case of “Hey Ya!”, it doesn’t get simpler or more stripped down. The sole two words of the chorus are the song title itself… or “hey ya”.
Combining a simple and memorable musical hook with a simple and memorable lyric is hit songwriting 101 and a formula which will likely never change simply because of how we respond to music.
Verse vs Chorus Comparison
The verse and chorus structure works so well in songwriting because of the dynamics it creates.
While everyone’s favorite part of a song 9 times out of 10 is the chorus by design, you need that contrast between the two to get the most out of one another.
You couldn’t just have a song which was all chorus. Staying “high” too long begins to burn out the listener. It’s the same rule in mixing itself – the listener needs dynamics to reset themselves now and then.
I do audio mastering over at Music Guy Mastering, and oftentimes when someone submits a mix for me to master, it’s been overly limited.
Limiting is an extreme form of compression which turns down the loudest parts of a song while turning up the quietest parts, thereby reducing the dynamic range of the song. In the case of limiting this is done to make the song louder overall.
When you push limiting too far, the result is that the entire song is very loud but also always roughly the same volume, or always high energy, regardless of verse vs chorus. The listener experiences fatigue without any dynamic range in a song as everything just runs together.
By contrasting low energy verses with high energy choruses both through songwriting, production, and mixing, you build anticipation for those choruses and take the listener on a journey through the valleys and peaks of your song.
This holds your listener’s attention throughout the entire song and makes for a better song and mix.
Verse vs Chorus in Mixing
Regardless of the exact melody/chorus hook or lyrics, we can manufacture a bigger chorus simply through our production in mixing.
Keeping a verse sparser or more stripped down in any number of ways before contrasting it with a bigger and busier chorus makes that chorus hit just a little bit harder.
One option is to hold back certain instruments for part of or all of the verse to make it feel smaller. For a typical four or eight bar verse which repeats, we can hold back an instrument which plays for the entire verse until the second half. This creates a feeling of building, giving the listener a subtle clue that the energy is growing and headed toward something bigger.
We can use mixing automation to open things up when that chorus hits, as well.
You might keep instruments on the verse panned closer to the center, or even use a stereo width plugin to actively narrow the width of the entire mix until the chorus hits at which point you open it up so the full stereo range is instantly felt.
We can also automate the master fader up by 1dB or so when that chorus hits so that there’s a subtle feeling that the energy ticks up that extra increment along with the existing raised energy which is inherent with the instrumentation, hook, and anything else on that chorus.
To sum up, the verse vs chorus are two distinct elements in a song, but two which rely heavily on one another to create a wholly satisfying listening experience in the song by way of the contrast which they (should) create together.