Before we get into this latest blog post on songwriting tips and in this case, writing verses (the best of your life)...let me ask you? Have you ever gone to a nice restaurant and ordered a great meal?
You know - that juicy main course and after so many delicious options on the menu, you end up choosing one. And then, yah, you look at dem appetizers too! Sometimes they look even more delicious than the main course. Sluurrrrp.
Now depending on the restaurant, some would say that that appetizer is just something to eat and fill you up a little while they prepare the main course.
Other restaurateurs would say “Oh No - How dare you say that about an appetizer!” Yes, maybe that appetizer is a masterpiece unto itself. Maybe you’ll leave the dinner saying - “That main course was good - but that appetizer. Wow!!” Or - “That appetizer really set up the main course exceptionally!”
Which brings me to the topic of verses in songs.
Yes - because your verse is the proverbial appetizer here, and your hook is the “main course.” Right? Yet, how many times do you hear a new song today and say “Dahhm! What a first verse!”
Let me tell you. Never. (Sadly, as I shed a small tear).
No, in fact, it’s more the case with most of today’s music - that after a few listens, I could probably sing back the hook - but the verse? Ummm. NOPE.
And by the way, you can get more key songwriting tips (like all the knowledge I’ve learned from signing and working with over 100 hit makers) right here at my Teachable course, Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting. It’s all the uncommon knowledge I’ve learned and created over the last 25 years of being a music publisher.
RAAAAAAAANDY Needs His Verses
On the other hand, what about the classics and hits from the 60s, 70s, 80s etc? You betcha! How to write music? Well - these people have it going on! The songs have incredible opening sections/stanzas! I mean, sometimes they’re as hooky as the choruses. And in some of those songs - there isn’t so much of a Verse / Chorus system at all. I would even argue some of my favorite songs from those decades have almost a structure of: Hook A, Hook B and Hook C.
Yes! Great verses are not just a frigging flimsy arugula appetizer with balsamic vinegar to get to your main course. The verse can be a main course onto itself!
So, let’s take a look at what’s going on.
If you’re with me on this premise - which is - we need to spend more time and focus on making your verses as good as your main course, let’s take a look at what we can do to increase our power potential.
And btw, if you are a more visual person and would like to watch a free module from my course Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting feel free to check out an entire video on the subject, Writing Better Verses below!
First, let’s talk about mindset. That’s your first key songwriting idea of the post.
Yah - first, can we just get rid of this flimsy notion that your sections (and especially your first verse) are “good enough” and just exist to get to the hook. That’s just a lazy songwriting approach so you can quit your session early to play Fortnite (you know who you are). C’mon already!
I mean when it comes to your chorus...would you be also that lazy about your chorus? Would you leave your hook “as is” and say - well it’s good enough? Hell, no! You’d make sure your chorus is an anthem and would knock your head off like Muhammed Ali.
And while keeping in mind that the verse’s purpose IS, of course, - to absolutely “serve up” the chorus - like in basketball, it’s like a team member “laying up” the shot for you so you can SLAM DUNK IT. However, I 100% believe we can all be setting up our choruses for much bigger slam dunks and scoring bigger points with better verses.
You with me on that? It’s also a key part of your job in making the best songs possible and in maybe even writing your first billion streaming song.
Verses are not an afterthought, although I feel they kinda are today. And please - don’t tell me “but song xyz that’s #1 on Billboard has a lame verse, so why does my song have to?”
Stop your whining! Because you’re better than that -- transient #1. Probably. Or at least I hope you’re aspiring to the very best of the songwriting universe and not just what is popular yesterday (and will likely be quickly forgotten next year).
Second - let’s get into the real meat (so many food analogies, I know) of this post and talk about how to write verses, devices and songwriting ideas that can help make your sections light up and serve your hook in the biggest way.
Cut me up a slice, Vader.
I have a whole post I just put out on this subject here and also - in my songwriting course, I have 5 video modules solely dedicated to the subject as I 100% believe - melodic rhythm is such a vital tool in your tool kit. In fact, it’s the God Particle of hit songwriting.
So what’s “melodic rhythm?” The melodic rhythm is the rhythm of the vocal - it’s the RHYTHM of the actual melody. And a great melodic rhythm is, in my opinion, what makes a hook a great hook first. Not actually a great melody. Melody comes second.
Show me a great repetitive melodic rhythm and I’ll show you the foundation for a hit.
On the other hand - show me an unorganized, random and “whatever” melodic rhythm and I’ll show you a “whatever” unorganized song that likely isn’t a hit. For more of what I’m talking about - check out my favorite melodic rhythms in this playlist.
Each song in this playlist has a melodic rhythm (the rhythm of the melody) that is FIRE! (including the smash nursery rhyme timeless hit “Three Blind Mice”).
The other takeaway here (and there’s a whole book I could write on this) is, as humans, I totally believe we’re attuned to great rhythms first - and then melody comes 2nd.
Work with me here.
If our human species is 200,000 years old … melody is actually pretty new (like 10,000 - 20,000 years old).
The take away is literally - can the melodic rhythm of your melody, be a hit … if you just played it solely on a log?
I’m serious. Rhythm is our first line of communication that “hits” the embedded DNA of our brain.
Pt 1. Summary - Show me a locked in, infectious, melodic rhythm - for a verse, or a chorus etc (the rhythm that the vocalist sings - even for ballads!) and I’ll probably show you a strong hook (and yes - there ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HOOKS IN VERSES!!).
You bet. As Prince once said, “Dig if you will the picture.”
You want some great songwriting tools? You got em! Think of contrast and songs like this. What happens if you’re a painter and you have 3 canvases - all the same size. And no doubt, you want each painting to stand out and be important on their own - but instead you paint all 3 of them red. Maybe different shades of red - but all red nonetheless. Which is which? Doesn’t make sense Why would you make 3 canvases all red?
But that’s exactly what a lot of songwriters do when it comes to playing the game of contrast.
In other words similar melodical elements (phrasing, melodic ranges, rhythm, etc) happening in different sections of the songs - just means that probably none of the sections are likely to stand out from each other. In other words - there’s a lot of “sameness.”
So how can we make our sections stand out and be different and yet, serve their purpose. How can you make those areas pop!?
The answer is … (drum roll). Yes you may have guessed it.
Yes, great songwriters are great contrasters. Hit makers play that game exceedingly well, whether they know it or not.
Let me give you some contrast examples to think about. And lucky you, your tool kit is starting to fill up. In fact, some of these techniques I almost feel are becoming pieces of lost art.
Yes, that’s how a lot of verses “sound” to me. There’s no B R E A T H! And much like the digital home recording evolution in 1995 - where you could have 8 ADATs linked up together, giving you - 64 digital tracks to play with - the natural inclination is if there’s space … we gotta FILL UP everything!
But that’s exactly what sometimes you don’t want to do!
For instance - this is how contrast can work for you. If your hook has A LOT of vocal information, like very full vocals and not a lot of space … well, how about having lots of SPACE in vocal lines in your VERSE! Especially if it’s an emotional piece. Because when people are emotional - or have something really hard or thoughtful they’re trying to say - that’s how they talk!
Take that line I previously mentioned...here it is again:
That’s probably not how you would talk to someone if you were really pouring your heart out.
It might sound something more like this.
You get what i’m saying here. SPACE is magic!
Let’s look at one of my favorite examples of songs classics utilizing space. Please key into the lyrics here the way the lyrics are “set” - is actually the way you would emotionally speak.
For instance. John Lennon sings ‘Imagine all the people….” And guess what …. He actually gives you S P A C E before the next line - to do exactly that! Imagine! What a classic opening line for your first verse. Wow.
Got it?! S P A C E. It’s a beautiful thing - especially if you can use it to contract with your sections.
Almost no one does this anymore. And what do I mean by interval writing?
Interval writing is the opposite of “scalar” or “riffing” around a melodic area. Intervals are melodic jumps.
For instance - a melody might start on a C and the next note is a B flat (a minor 7th) higher.
Maybe it’s just “out of fashion” or singers / writers forgot about this and things have become more linear in general - but you can absolutely use the strategy of intervals as one of your tools in the game of contrast.
For instance - if your chorus is kind of scalar - meaning the notes are within 2nd and minor thirds primarily to each other … how about using interval jumps in your sections to differentiate them from your hook and vice versa.
Here’s one of my favorite examples from West Side Story, “Somewhere.” Damn, what a song. Listen to how beautiful this melody is! “There’s - A - Place - For - Us” The interval between “There’s” and “A” is a minor 7th. And different intervals in between the other words.
You see what I’m saying about intervals and jumps in the melody? Memorable.
Oh, I know what you’re saying - those are “old timey” kind of melodies. Well, what about LMFAO and “Party Rock Anthem?”
This song uses intervals to contrast the linear raps in the verses. “Party Rock is in the HOUUUUUSSSEEEE tonight.” Yeah - we get a big vocal melody jump on the lyric “House” - like an octave! And you thought those guys didn’t have “range.” : )
Oh and BTW if you’re a professional songwriter - don’t forget that singers love to sing. Give them challenging melodic ranges - WITH interval jumps!
Yes, length of lines is another great way to differentiate your sections. Let’s take a look at a 90s classic by Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Notice the verse is just 2 lines … very lonnnnnngggggg lines.
Load up on guns, bring your friends It's fun to lose and to pretend
She's over-bored and self-assured Oh no, I know a dirty word
But then the chorus has shorter phrases.
With the lights out
it's less dangerous
Here we are now
I feel stupid
Here we are now
(Oh and every section of this song, including the pre, has a locked in melodic rhythm. Snap!)
Now,here’s something really cool. I’ve been saying all along how to differentiate your verses in this post. But don’t forget in differentiating your verses, you’re also actually differentiating your choruses!
Here’s another great one. You can think of melodies as shapes. Are your melodies going up?
Or are they sloping down?
Or do they look like a tent?
(Melodies going both up and down, for those of you who can’t figure it out).
Or are they linear?
In other words maybe your verses are just one note. One note you say? Psshhh. How boring? Nope!! Let me give you an example from Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty. Here’s one of my favorite, lesser known songs by Janet Jackson called “If.”
Notice the verse melody. Yah you got it. It’s.One.Friggin.Note.
But what happens in the pre? Ohhh …. Movement! The melody actually has a contour and moves! And nice chords! It’s a real melody! That’s what I’m talking about …. contrast! Now, if the pre was also just one note - hmm, not so much, right?
This is a more obtuse way to contrast - but it’s 1000% valid.
Imagine you started all your phrases of your verse on the “1” of the 1st measure. And did the same on the pre chorus. And you also started all your phrases on the “1” of the 1st measure of the chorus. Hmm - you get what I’m getting at here.
What if you “front loaded” your first section rhythmically? What if you “back loaded” your pre-chorus? What if you started your hook on the “1” of the measure?
Now you have contrast between sections - AND a way to kick in the door with your chorus landing on SOLID FOOTING on the “1” of the measure.
This is one of my favorites. Same concept here. If you use 1/16th notes in your verses and also primarily in your pre and then also 1/16th notes in your central section … well, what kind of song are you going to have? Probably one that doesn’t pop and sounds pretty linear.
You would say - well, who would write a song like that? Well, you’d be surprised how many songs come in that use general 1/8th notes and ¼ notes for most of each of their sections.
But imagine creating the following type of song:
Verses - using 1/16th notes
PreChorus - using ¼ note triplets
Chorus - using primarily long notes!
That sounds like a possible BIG ass song to me! And each section will naturally pop - just solely out of the note values being used by the singer.
Also keep in mind - these are not just devices you can use AS you’re writing … but also a way you can write yourself out of a jam. Um - What?
For instance - let’s say you’re stuck. Damn - my pre just isn’t “fire” - can’t figure it out.
Well … maybe you can just try one of these contrasting devices. Like as you’re creating - imagine each of the below devices as a “plug in” solution - and try writing in one of these styles for your pre chorus.
My hunch is you’re going to unlock your solution with CONTRAST:
Ahh - we didn’t talk about #7 yet did we? But it’s also one of my favorites.
If your first verse uses a melodic range of C to G and your pre-chorus used the same melodic range and your hook also used a range of C to G … what type of song are you probably going to have?
A pretty boring linear song, I think! Rick from the Young Ones said it the best. Your verses are saying the following: “Why don’t you listen to me … I’m not a saucer you know!”
But imagine if you had this type of contrast melodically.
Imagine your verses “owned” the melodic range of C to G.
Your Pre-Chorus “owned” the melodic range of F to B flat.
And the hook “owned” the upper melodic range of B flat to G … giving your entire song a range of an octave and a fifth (from a lower “C” to a “G” an octave above).
Each of your sections has a “zone” where that melody “lives.”
Now we’re talking contrast!
And make not doubt there’s probably dozens of other things you can do in the game of contrast.
For example, maybe your pre is a spoken word type of thing - with no melody! And then your hook is filled with melody.
There’s tons more you can do with contrast in all kinds of other things be it harmony, production, lyrical rhymes etc.
Another great way to make the sections of your song “stand out” is being aware of your rhyme scheme. It’s a simple enough concept. For instance, if the rhyme scheme in your chorus is A – B – A – B – A, then maybe the rhyme scheme of your verses could be A- A – B – B, or perhaps your verse lyrics don’t need to rhyme at all! Let me give you an example.
Here is a Song Example
Let’s Pretend I wrote a Verse
And Continue the Example by Not Rhyming
Wow this is really cool!
Isn’t it amazing to write SONGS (A)
It’s like a fire alarm – ding DONG! (A)
In fact, I feel like King KONG (A)
Isn’t it amazing to write SONGS (A)
You see how my rhyme scheme here is completely different. The verses are not rhyming at all. Yet, the hook as an A – A – A – A rhyme scheme, thus contrasting the sections and helping them stand apart and contrast.
Another overall consideration is the point of view your first verse. As my mentor, Berklee College of Music professor and friend Pat Pattison would say – your 1st verse needs (should) answer: Who? What? Where? When?
Additionally, what is the point of view? For instance, is the song being written from the perspective of first person (meaning observed experience directly by you i.e. “I”) or second or third person. Depending the song, it’s important to keep this point of view consistent. One other idea, however, is considering how point of view can change the impact of your song! For instance – maybe your song would be more empowering from a 2nd person perspective (i.e. “you,” etc). All things to consider when kicking off your first verse.
Oh and one other observation I have in regards to creating great melodies...
Sometimes - having an interesting and great melody - starts with having interesting and great chords (harmony) to write those melodies over in the first place!
So, if you’re collaborating with someone - and your sections or melodies are falling flat - make sure you have some interesting chords that are inspiring you! Allow your song different harmonic colors and an instant interesting foundation inspiring you to have more interesting melodies.
Lastly - let’s talk about songs that don’t really even have a verse. What? Yeah - there’s some songs that just have more of a Hook 1, Hook 2, Hook 3 and repeat! I mentioned that earlier in the post - and those are some of my favorites.
In fact, I heard a rumor about U2. And I don’t know if this is true - but as they’re master songwriters and perfectionists - I wouldn't doubt it.
Rumor is they would write a chorus … and really amp up that central section and make it as best as they could. Yes, they’d make it a home run chorus.
Then they’d say - “OK that’s going to be -- our verse! Now we need a new hook that beats that!” Whether or not that’s true - I think it’s a pretty compelling idea.
On that note, here are 3 of my favorite songs that are just hook, upon hook, upon hook. I mean what section here is the verse? Or is each section of the song just a BIG FAT hook? It is to me!
So, can you write a song - whereby each section of the song is a massive hook?
And now - sadly (sheds tear for a second time) we’re coming to the end of the post. Wordpress limits how much you can write in a single post, you know? Kidding!
But I have an appropriate bookend to this piece - let’s get back to the food analogy.
Imagine that great meal you just had … remember that main course (your chorus?) Yes, the main course was incredible.
Oh - but the appetizer! So savorrrrrryy and also just so tasty and delicious.
It makes your mouth water and your gut grumble for something bigger and better. And then the main course tastes even better.
That’s what great songwriters do. Time to get to work and amp up dem verses!
And p.s. I’ll have what she’s having.
Food for thought. And how’s that for some songwriting tips?
Benjamin Groff has been a music executive for over 25 years, including holding key creative positions at BMG and EMI. In 2006, Benjamin was hired to start the 1st U.S. operations of Kobalt Music and signed much of the key roster over 10 years. Benjamin is a #1 Best Selling Amazon author of the book “How Do I Get A Record Deal? Sign Yourself!” and has also created 2 highly rated Teachable courses, “Insider Secrets to Hit Songwriting” and “The DIY Release Blueprint: A 6 Week Plan to Properly Release Your Music.”
His past signings range from: Ryan Tedder, Grimes, The Lumineers, Jake Torrey, Peaches, Kelly Clarkson, Greg Kurstin, Tiesto, Savan Kotecha, OneRepublic, TOKiMONSTA, SOPHIE, Cut Copy, Adam Lambert, Ariel Rechtshaid and Big Freedia to name a few.
Currently, Benjamin owns and runs his own publishing company, Brill Building and record label / A&R resource, We Are: The Guard.