There’s no question that a great chorus makes or breaks a pop song. In fact, it’s even possible to write a hit song with a chorus so good, that the mediocre verses don’t matter. To me, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town” is a classic example of a song with a killer chorus that has lame verses.
That said, verses are an incredibly important songwriting tool, and these days there is less and less room for lackluster verses. Pop songs in 2017 need to be hooky from start to finish, and these days verses are sounding more like more complicated choruses.
Once a listener hits play, you’ve got about 15 – 20 seconds to convince them that they should listen to your entire song. Being that the verse is often the first thing people hear, it needs to be good.
Of course, there are no “rules” for writing verses or choruses or anything really, but there are certain patterns that many songs follow that you can emulate to craft an excellent verse.
It should be noted that I’m mostly referring to pop music in this guide – other genres like folk, country, hip-hop etc have completely different patterns and structures that fit the style.
Ways To Write A First Verse
I always like verses that grab you right away. The first words of a song are often the first thing a listener hears, so it’s great when it launches you right into the feeling and vibe of the song.
You need to make your first lyric “strong” so that it cuts through everything else grabs the listener’s attention.
Here are a couple of ways to write your first verse.
One way to do this, is with a strong, visual image. These lines will often launch people into the setting and theme of the song with just a few lines.
For example, the new Taylor Swift song “…Ready For It?’”starts with this line:
He was a killer, first time that I saw him, wonder how many girls he had loved and left haunted.
Good line, not necessarily the most poetic thing I’ve ever heard, but that’s okay. Basically, what’s so strong about this line are the vivid descriptive words and how powerfully it throws you into a scene.
Describing somebody good looking and charming as a “killer” is dramatic, but effective. It immediately gives a lot of information; he’s handsome, charming, but also a player who can get anything he wants.
Then, the second line cements this by saying not just that he had been through many girls beforehand, but that they would be left “haunted” by him.
There’s a ton of information in a small amount of time that causes you to somersault into the song.
Clever Rhyme Schemes
Another obvious way to make first verses interesting is by choosing, sticking to, and then experimenting with interesting rhyme schemes.
Rhymes keep listeners interested by letting their brains run wild, trying to figure out what the next rhyme will be. Here are a couple interesting variations on traditional rhyme schemes.
Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” uses a very modern sounding AAAB, AAAB format. This allows him to surprise the listener with the last part of every verse, because you can basically go anywhere with that last “B”.
That said, keeping this format consistent is very satisfying, because the first “surprise B” is tied together with another “B” rhyme at the very end of the verse. Check it out:
A: You gotta go and get angry at all of my honesty
A: You know I try but I don’t do too well with apologies
A: I hope I don’t run out of time, could someone call a referee?
B: Cause I just need one more shot at forgiveness
A: I know you know that I made those mistakes maybe once or twice
A: By once or twice I mean maybe a couple a hundred times
A: So let me, oh let me redeem, oh redeem, oh myself tonight
B: Cause I just need one more shot at second chances
Provides some interest, but also a great deal of satisfaction.
Gotye & Kimbra’s song “Somebody That I Used To Know” has a much more interesting and complicated rhyme scheme.
They keep a loose ABCCA form throughout the song, and make great use of rhyme within lines of the verse. The ABCCA form is only adhered to at the ends of lines.
A: Now and then I think of when we were together
B: Like when you said you felt so happy you could die
C: Told myself that you were right for me
C: But felt so lonely in your company
A: But that was love and it’s an ache I still remember
A: You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness
B: Like resignation to the end, always the end
C: So when we found that we could not make sense
C: Well you said that we would still be friends
A: But I’ll admit that I was glad it was over
This format offers continuous surprise in the first verse and really allows them to tell a story, because there is so much freedom in that second “B” line. It doesn’t have to rhyme with anything.
Offering up some internal rhymes keeps the ear happy and just make the lyrics flow nicely.
Writing The Second Verse
I love second verses. They are my favorite, because you can do so much with them and they are usually one of the most interesting parts of the song, because you can build on an established theme.
Here are some hallmarks of a great second verse:
- Second verses are often half as long as the first one. This launches you into the chorus much faster.
- Second verses should do something interesting instrumentally. You can bring in the backbeat here, add an instrument, hit a break, open things up, strip things away – you just need to differentiate it from the first verse.
- Second verses often move the story along, and get to the point or drive home the message of the song. They can offer twists in the narrative and all sorts of interesting writing opportunities.
- The second verse usually matches the cadence and rhyme scheme of the first verse, but it can be a great time to switch up the melody, especially leading to the chorus.
- The second verse should not repeat the same information as the first verse. This is boring. If you’re tempted, you might as well just repeat the first verse, because sometimes that can actually work.
Examples Of Second Verses
To take the example of Taylor Swift’s “…Are You Ready For It?” again, check out what her second verse does.
Me, I was a robber first time that he saw me
Stealing hearts and running off and never saying sorry
In the first verse, the song focused on “him”. Describing who he was, how he related to his exes, and what made him so attractive.
The second verse doesn’t need to continue this, instead it describes her situation when she met this guy. As the verse goes on, it describes what they’ll do together and her feelings towards him.
In “Somebody That I Used To Know”, they make use of a similar idea. Of course, because it’s a duet, that gives the second verse some automatic interest, but it’s still interesting lyrically.
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
But had me believing it was always something that I’d done
But I don’t wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn’t catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know
The second verse keeps to the same rhyme scheme and phrasing as the first, but has a different melody at the end of the second verse that leads straight into the chorus. Check out the song to see what I’m talking about.
Lyrically, the second verse gives the opposite perspective from the first verse. After the second verse, you don’t feel bad for the guy anymore!
This verse is also half as long as the first verse, which is always an effective way to move the song along.
It doesn’t really have a lot of separation in terms of instrumentation, but it does have a completely different singer, which provides all the “difference” that a second verse requires.
Every time I write a song that is “just missing something”, it’s always the pre-chorus. Some songs naturally flow from verse to chorus, but others need something to connect the two sections.
“…Are You Ready For It?” has a great pre-chorus that is at least as catchy as the chorus. It provides harmonic change that prepares your ears for the chorus, it provides tension that the chorus relieves, and it moves the song lyrically towards the hook.
If your verses don’t seem to fit the chorus, try writing a pre-chorus. They are one of the most valuable songwriting tools in your arsenal.
General Verse Writing Tips
Here are a few tips to help you write effective verses:
- Keep your verses snappy. Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. You should always make your verse aim for the chorus, and slingshot the listener into it.
- Verses are often lower than choruses. Most choruses are meant to be belted out with enthusiasm (the exceptions are many, I know) and it’s often helpful to keep the verses lower in your register.
- Use repetition. Lyrically, you can repeat structures, cadence, rhymes, and even full phrases. Melodically, you want people to sing along, so repeat melodies throughout the verses.
- Alliteration and rhymes within lines are great ways to keep verses flowing smoothly. Look to rappers for examples of this – they are masters of these techniques.
- You can repeat entire verses. Many songs repeat the first verse as a short, broken down third verse, or will end with the first line of the first verse. This can be a great way to drive a message home.