There are only 12 notes in western traditions. Yet, there’s endless complexity and bottomless variety.
I think I’m a discerning listener. My tastes stretch well beyond mainstream commercialism. But today, I want to sing the praises of something so common and rudimentary that its enduring popularity upends everything I think I love.
The humble Verse-Chorus song structure. The undisputed hero of pop for nearly a century. We’ve never stopped reworking it with pre-choruses, bridges, fancy key changes and chord progressions. In the end, I am 100% a sucker for these songs. To me, they’re irresistible because they’re so predictable.
The Verse-Chorus is not the only form, but it’s the one we always come back. Why?
What is a Verse-Chorus Song?
Simply put, it’s a method of songwriting that relies on two main sections. The verse establishes the theme or story of the song. Each time the verse is repeated, the melody is the same, but the lyrics usually change – moving the narrative along or offering a new twist. The chorus contains the main idea of the song and the catchiest part or the hook. As its name implies, it’s the part where we all sing along.
The verse creates anticipation. The chorus releases the tension. This yin-and-yang relationship is at the heart of much of the music I can't live without.
To see how the form works, try breaking down a favorite song section by section. It’s an exercise familiar to anyone who stayed awake in middle school Music Appreciation class. You can do this with early Beatles, Dylan or Marvin Gaye. Radiohead’s “High and Dry” is a classic. Sleater-Kinney’s “You’re No Rock ’n‘ Roll Fun” is a fun inversion where what’s technically the verse is really the hook. I could write a book on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”
Let’s try it with the impossible great “September Gurls” by Big Star — “the greatest #1 that never charted,” as Michael Chabon once wrote.
:00-:08 Intro — Like many genius Verse-Chorus songs, Big Star leads with the hook, immediately establishing the main riff in all its jangly glory.
:09-:24 Verse 1 — All my favorite pop songs sound happy and are actually sad. The music on “Gurls” is pure summer sweetness, but the lyrics are all autumn longing. This song came out a decade after Beatlemania in ’74 so even the production is yearning to go backwards. Alex Chilton delivers the simple but devastating, “I loved you, but never mind / I’ve been crying all the time.”
:25-:42 Chorus 1 — There’s a quick little Ringo drum fill to signal a change, and the riff returns. There’s no explaining the difference between “December Boys” and “September Gurls.” The harmonies give that simple seasonal contrast all the meaning we need.
:43-:48 Verse 2 — Back to the title Gurls. The music and beat remain the same with a new lyrical twist. Chilton admits he can neither understand them nor can he stay away.
:49-1:12 Chorus 2 — The repetition becomes euphoric (yet still sad!). We’ve all got it bad by now — getting a hit of dopamine each time we hear the refrain.
1:13-1:26 Bridge – More than a transition, the bridge is the crux of the whole song. Separated up to now, Gurl and Boy finally get together and … “ooooo!”
1:27-1:50 Solo — I always assumed there was a 12-string in there à la “Hard Day’s Night.”
But Bruce Eaton’s 33 ⅓ book on this album Radio City says it’s actually a mando-guitar layered in with the lead and rhythm parts to create the magical ringing. You must air-drum to this longer Ringo break before…
1:51-2:06 Verse 3 — “Third verse same as the first,” as Gordon Gano said. Are you surprised they didn’t bother to write a third verse? Look, Verse-Chorus is an art form dedicated to repetition. I love Chilton knew that we would already dream of starting the song over and happily did it for us.
2:06-2:48 Chorus/Coda — One more time with extra “ooo”s and a glorious outro. Not even three minutes long and not a wasted note.
For me and many others, it’s the ultimate power-pop song, never to be bested. This same “Riff/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Bridge/Solo/Verse/Chorus/Coda” structure has been used countless times, including by Paul Westerberg and the Replacements when they penned their fan letter, “Alex Chilton.”
Every part of “September Gurls” is executed perfectly, but they’re all dead simple. After a million listens, I don’t know how they add up to something profound.
Why We Love Verse-Chorus
How can something so simple still be a mystery? I remember being a kid in a big box bookstore with a wall of “How to Write a Hit” books, all dedicated to cracking the code of the Verse-Chorus songs. Go to YouTube to find dozens of folks promising to do the same. Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo notoriously kept enormous binders scientifically breaking down his favorite Nirvana, Oasis and Green Day hits.
Perhaps, we come back to the Verse-Chorus song structure again and again because it’s a formula that’s addictive by design. Trillions have been made refining it. The Verse-Chorus structure dates way back, but it dominated through the rise of mass media because it standardized songwriting for maximum accessibility. With music’s limitless possibilities, we take comfort in the familiar, and feel in control when we know what’s next. For better and worse, it’s omnipresent.
I should point out my own cultural bias. I was raised in late 20th-century suburbia. I’m an American male who grew up on radio, MTV and record stores. I have been programmed to love western popular music since birth. I enjoy jazz, classical, EDM and other traditions from around the world, but I love rock, pop, folk, R&B, hip-hop, and country because they are genres rooted in familiar song structures.
That’s not due to any inherently superiority. If anything, my obsession with pop songs is a failure to grasp more complex and intricate forms. I always find joy in discovering what speaks to others, but still, I like what I like.
A few years ago, famous music critic Sasha Frere-Jones started an extremely subjective experiment to list his favorite “Perfect Recordings”. The exercise was more personal biography than definitive criticism. As Frere-Jones admitted, “None of this is accurate, and all of it is true.”
I return to his playlists now and again. They are wildly diverse (Biggie plays into Whitney Huston, which shifts into X). They’ve inspired me to create my own personal history mixes. The one I listen to most is called “Triggers,” a list of infectious earworms that I love no matter how much I hit replay. They are almost entirely Verse-Chorus songs.
Take the first track, “Molly’s Lips” by Nirvana (which I swiped from Frere-Jones). It’s a cover from the Scottish cult band, The Vaselines, which Cobain frequently name-checked. It was recorded during a Peel Session about a month after Dave Grohl joined.
It’s just two chords, less than two minutes and makes Big Star look like Rachmaninoff. The lyrics are an ode to an actress from a Scottish kid show. In other words, it’s as pure a distillation of Verse-Chorus bliss as you can find. Buzzsaw guitar and Grohl’s drumming drive us forward, but it’s the harmonies that have burrowed into me just like with “September Gurls.” Nirvana brought punk to the masses because they not so secretly knew how to use a pop sing-along chorus to maximum effect. “Molly’s Lips” is as much Cobain’s blueprint for world domination as the loud-quiet-loud dynamics of Pixies.
No joke: I listened to it every day for a couple of years. Like a monk reciting a mantra, it brought me peace.
The Future of Verse-Chorus Songs
There is no shortage of brilliant sing-songwriters crafting unique Verse-Chorus masterpieces today. Check out Phoebe Bridgers, Big Thief or Jason Isbell for proof. But it’s far from the only form out there, and increasingly not the one dominating the charts.
This New York Times piece from earlier in the year takes a fascinating look at how the ways we listen to music are altering songwriting today. Streaming platforms and their algorithms prize replays. Social channels like TikTok and Instagram make only the most infectious snip-its go viral. Artists are not only front-loading their albums with their best songs; they’re front-loading songs with more and more hooks.
Tracks are getting shorter. Old rules are ditched. The separation between verses and choruses is breaking down. Hooks upon hooks are stacked on top of each other with EDM builds and drops spliced between.
Please don’t think I’m telling the kids to get off my lawn. Evolution is exciting. Take this sly track by Houston MC, Tobe Nwigwe, which claims to have no chorus, yet delivers one anyways: “This is the chorus for the Haters.”
There might be something to be said for a loss of craft, but the Verse-Chorus form was largely perfected by commercial decisions too. It wowed crowds and kept us tuned into radio broadcasts. Today songs are being retooled to urging us for even more addictive replay. New innovations will come from this freedom to experiment.
Verses and chorus are probably woven too deep to ever disappear entirely. But more importantly, as long as listeners are willing to pay attention and really hear what artists are doing, music will always reward us no matter the shape it takes.