4 Music Theory Techniques To Help You Write a Great Chorus

[Editors Note: This article was written by Chelsea Ira of New Artist Model.]

 

I want you to think of some of your favorite songs. You know, those choruses you could sing over and over for hours and still not be sick of them.

How do you think those songwriters stumbled upon something so seemingly perfect?

Was it a bolt of inspiration out of the blue?

Or did it stem from their understanding of music and countless hours of practice?

More likely than not, it was a combination of the two. In songwriting, it’s important to find a balance between chasing inspiration and developing your skills. Too much or too little focus on either could leave you in a frustrating writer’s block.

But today I want to focus on the technical side of things. More specifically, I want to go through a few music theory techniques that you can use to spark killer chorus ideas and get your inspiration flowing.

Of course, these are only ideas to get you started. If inspiration strikes, follow your creativity and even break some music theory rules!

1. Simplify Things Down to a Motif

As songwriters we can sometimes get caught up in the big elaborate vision we have for a chorus. This top-down approach to songwriting can certainly work, but it’s very easy for the essence of the hook to get lost amidst everything else. And then you’ll end up with a non-descript chorus that falls flat compared to the initial vision you heard in your head.

In other words, the hook gets lost in translation.

An easy way to get past this is to simplify your idea, narrowing it down to one or two motifs – then build up from there.

In music theory, a motif is a short musical idea that is used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, and grooves. Typically, motifs are very short and simple. Think of them like small little Lego blocks that can be stuck together in multiple different ways to create larger things.

I can’t emphasize simple enough when it comes to motifs. Often it’s the songs that use the simplest motifs that really stick in our heads.

Blues songs are one of the easiest places to see motifs at work. Take a listen to Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues and you’ll hear a motif in the first line of the lyrics, starting on A, going up to B♭ and C, and then back down to F. That motif is repeated with subtle variations and is answered by a second motif.

Another example is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I know – it’s not exactly modern music. But, it’s a great example of just how powerful simple motifs can be. Almost everything in the song is created and derived from that iconic four-note motif. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is.

Next time you’re stuck on a chorus, try simplifying things down and really think about the motifs you’re using. Try making small changes or variations to those motifs and stringing them together in different orders. Starting from the core of your hook and working out from there will give your choruses a very strong and cohesive sound.

2. Play With Sequences

Expectation and anticipation is something every great chorus harnesses. You want the listener to be expecting and waiting for that hook to come around – the hook and the sections leading up to it should almost act like a magnet that draws the ear to the most important part of your song.

In music theory, one technique you can use to create expectation for your hook is a sequence. A sequence is a musical idea that is transposed and repeated to create a pattern.

A motivic sequence is made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using specific interval pattern. (For example you could move the motif down by a 4th and up by a 2nd.)

A harmonic sequence is made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern.

Our ears latch onto musical patterns by nature, so as soon as you establish a sequence your listener will catch on and begin anticipating where the music will go next.

In songwriting, you can use this to really build things up before or during your chorus and draw the ear into your hook.

Alternatively, you could also create expectation with a sequence and not follow through by playing something completely unexpected to create tension.

3. Pull From the Notes in Your Chord Progression

The notes in a chord will always be the strongest, so they can be a great starting point when you’re writing a strong melody for a chorus.

You see this all the time in popular songs. The hook will pull out one or two notes from the chord(s) underneath it, or even outline all the notes in the chord. Using your melodies to drive home the key notes in your chord progressions can create an overall more cohesive sound and a much stronger composition.

Of course, you don’t need to only use notes from your chords. Try using them as a sort of outline for your hook.

If you write melody first, try going back and creating a chord progression that incorporates some of those main melody notes. If you write chords first, try pulling out key notes to create an outline for your melody.

If you want to expand on this idea even more, try looking into modes. If you’re playing in they key of C Major, use the G Mixolydian mode to create the melody line over the G Major chord and the F Lydian mode to create the melody line over the F Major chord. This just allows you to pull out those strong notes that will really get your hook to stand out.

4. Harness the Power of Repetition and Subtle Variations

Repetition is often the thing that really drives a strong hook home.

Think about songs like “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. The chorus is simple and it’s played over and over (and over) again. But despite all that repetition, it’s pretty tough to get sick of that song.

Why?

If you take a closer listen, you’ll notice that there are subtle variations in each chorus. Different instruments are added into the mix and small compositional changes help keep things fresh.

Once you have a great hook or chorus, experiment with it, see all the different ways you can subtly manipulate it, and use those variations in your song to really get that hook in your listeners’ heads.


It goes without saying that if you want to write hooks and choruses like the greats, you should study their work. Make a habit to try to really dissect some of the choruses from your favorite songs to see what’s going on.

We gave you a few examples in this article, but if you want more, you can download the ebook Inside the Hits: The Secrets Behind 10 Hit Songs for free here. In that book you’ll see what’s going on from a music theory perspective behind 10 big hits by artists like Rihanna, The Police, Bruno Mars, Mark Ronson, Jay-Z, Johnny Cash, and more.

Even If You’re a Professional Musician, You Should Consider Taking Lessons

[Editors Note: This was written by Hugh McIntyre. Hugh writes about music and the music industry and regularly contributes to Forbes, Sonicbids, and more.]

 

When most musicians first jump into the business and try to make a go at superstardom (or even just surviving, which is difficult enough), they are only good enough to get by. It’s fine to begin writing, creating, and recording music while you’re still something of a beginner, and you shouldn’t let technical skills get in the way of you indulging your creative nature and exploring what kind of artist you’d like to be.

It’s fine when you first start to be, well, okay—in fact, “okay” is better than a lot of those just launching what could become careers, take it from someone who has heard from a lot of those bands and artists—but please know that your limited skill set will only be acceptable for a short period of time.

If you really want to be a full-time professional musician, let alone one who makes it big and tops the charts, you are going to need to not only take lessons of one kind or another, but you will likely need to continue to re-up your knowledge and continue your education for years to come. If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is, but nobody said being a professional musician was going to be easy.

There are many instances of musicians being interesting enough, compelling enough, proficient enough, or even just lucky enough to sign record deals and make a living with even just a beginner’s musical education, but it’s the ones who don’t just tour and create music, but who work on their craft and stay focused on always wanting to be better than the day before who end up making not just the biggest splash, but who splash for many years.

Think of it like this: Many musicians choose not to go to college for their art, and while that isn’t necessarily a decision I’d endorse, I understand the logic and the reasoning. It is extremely difficult to get a job in that field after school ends, and it’s even tougher with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt hanging over one’s head that needs to be paid off.

While that may be somewhat acceptable in music, especially popular music, almost every other industry in the world requires at least one college degree, if not two. Even those who earn those certificates end up taking classes of going through trainings at the jobs they choose later on.

For many musicians, the equivalent of going to a university is touring, practicing, and definitely taking lessons. If you’re not going to be sitting in a classroom for four years (or hell, even if you are!), you should be spending that much time in lessons, classes, practices and so on throughout your career. You might not need to spend quite as much money, but it’s an important thing to invest in.

It’s also important to note that taking lessons doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bad, or that you still have a long way to go. You can be a working, professional musician with a wonderful body of work and plenty of critical acclaim and still learn something new. Even the biggest and best of the bunch work with other acts, teachers, voice coaches and the like to improve, tone, and work on perfecting their art.

As you progress in your career (or perhaps it’s not a career just yet), you will need to hire teachers and instructors that are more and more advanced. In the beginning, it will be all about mastering the basics, but as time goes on and you become a better musician, you may want to take that next step and pick up a new instrument, or perhaps it’s time you learned to sing. These skills will help you become better overall, and that’s the goal, isn’t it?

If music truly is your number one passion and the thing you most want to dedicate your life to (which it better be if you’re going to try and make a living in this nearly impossible industry), you won’t even mind going back to a coach or a teacher, because improving, learning, studying, and proving to yourself that you can always do better should be a joy.

Have fun with it, don’t worry about being perfect, and work extremely hard, and you might just have a chance at going down as one of the greats.