What Makes A Great Chorus?

We just posted a feature on the 50 most explosive choruses ever – a lovenote to those exhilarating ‘take-off’ moments when a song slaps you round the face with its manifest awesomeness.

But what is going on there, exactly? What gives a great chorus its power, its startling ability to alter your body chemistry? I spoke to two people with some expertise in this area – Bryan Adams, whose best-known choruses made the world punch the air – and (giving a more academic insight), Dai Griffiths, senior lecturer in music at Oxford Brookes.


Bryan Adams
What makes a chorus connect? Is it the pure exhilaration of the musical hook, or are the words crucial?
It’s both. Lyrically, the chorus is summing up what you’ve been trying to say in the verses.

Does the chorus tend to come first, or do you write the rest of the song, and then agonise over a killer chorus?
Usually the chorus does come first, but many times I’ve agonised over where a good verse goes. Mutt Lange [producer of ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’] was good at turning my choruses into verses, and then sitting me down to write a chorus to the “new verse”.

Songs like ‘Run To You’, ‘Summer Of 69’, people go bloody nuts when they hear those choruses. What are they responding to? Why do they work so well?
They work well because they are so simple. ‘Everything I Do’ and ‘Summer Of 69’ don’t have real choruses, they have verses followed by a kind of “channel” with a catchy title which then leads you to the next verse.

When you wrote them, did you know you’d written something special?
The song was written in about 45 minutes using a bit of music from the film composer Michael Kamen, and a new top line we created some time after dinner one night. I remember Mutt saying, “Try it”, after the first verse was written, so I sang it back to him and we both smiled.


How are famous choruses born? Hard graft? Or do they just pop into your head?
I think both are possible. For me, however, it was always the graft. You had to put the time in to make it great. Furthermore, just because you came up with a reasonable idea, it doesn’t mean it can’t be better still – that is the beauty of working with someone you respect and trust. Or if you are in a band, to work the idea some more, until it explodes. Essentially you have to be open to making things better. It could also come from a producer.

Who is the greatest writer of choruses?
Interesting question. The Beatles wrote lots of amazing ones (‘Help’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, ‘A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’), Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ – there are a million. The most explosive chorus of all time? ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones, perhaps?

Dai Griffiths, musicologist

Can you define a chorus in music terms?
In the form of songs, they’re sections in which the words are repeated while other sections, the verses, change their words. This usually then means that the chorus is a separate and distinct musical section usually following a verse (but not always: ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ keep the same chord structure through the chorus.)

Musically what do the songs in our list have in common? What gives these choruses such impact?
At least six of them (Bon Jovi, Ronettes, Oasis, Blink-182, Killers, Nirvana) include a distinct pre-chorus linking verse to chorus and usually producing a build-up to the chorus. ‘Be My Baby’ is a good example where the pre-chorus (“So won’t you say you’re sorry%3E%22%29%20is%20a%20series%20of%20four%20chords%20that%20effectively%20demand%20that%20the%20chorus%20follows.%20%3Cspan%20class%3D%22highlight”>A sense of release follows that, which could also be an explosion. The Oasis section about the “revolution in my head” (‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’) and all of Nirvana’s “hello“s (‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) do something similar – link and build.

One of them is relatively slow – Oasis take us into “anthem” qualities, in addition to those of choruses in general. Their “singability” resides in their melodic lines: clear melody and chords, climax points, strong descents to the tonic note.

Some of the songs include melodic climbs, so that the tune’s peak is saved for the chorus. ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ saves its highest note for the “So” of “So, Sally can wait“, and reaches a climax at “Don’t look back in anger“. Bon Jovi (‘Livin’ On A Prayer’) is a good case where the chorus has the wildly or explosively high notes, after the ruminative verse and pre-chorus.

Finally, something usually happens in the harmony or chords, even if only that they’re different to the verse. Suede’s ‘Animal Nitrate’ is a good example where the chorus (with its lovely chromatic figure in the guitar) benefits by following a verse that’s relatively dull. All that happens there is that a minor key gives way in the chorus to its nearest major key. More dramatic harmonic “explosions” can be found in David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ (at the pre-chorus). Two of the pop hits – ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ – have chord explosions later in the track, where they “whack up” the key of the song, Starship by one chromatic step, Bon Jovi a cleverly executed three steps.

Are there any tricks of the trade that songwriters employ to give choruses impact?

There are rules, but thy vary depending on the song. If pushed, I’d claim that rules for chorus writing include these three:

  • Have a strong hook line in the words, and save the hook line for the chorus.
    • Set the chorus off musically, through any combination of melody, chords, rhythm, instrumentation, sound quality.

    • Consider the shape of verse and chorus as a whole, so that the chorus concludes a musical process that begins at the verse, and possibly including a pre-chorus.

    Many of the choruses in our list feature ‘woahs’ and ‘yeahs’. Does that mean words aren’t important?
    On words, and wordless singing, most of these tracks do save either the title or a significant line (“You’re taking me over“) for the chorus. But “singability” and memorable melody can trump words, Blink-182 being a good example.

    Physiologically, how do choruses trigger responses in the body? What is happening there?
    It varies. I’d be wary of equating experience of these choruses in the living room with a festival. Even if it were possible to establish that all people experience the same physiological experience at a certain point in a song, I think there’d be too many variables among listeners. For example, in your list, the effect of the chorus of ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ in my experience dwarfs that of ‘Go Your Own Way’.

    Most explosive chorus ever?
    ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the chorus rock music was destined to discover or attain, a line going back at least as far as ‘Louie Louie’. In British pop music, I’m struck each year that Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ is proving a durable chorus, now nearly forty years on. It has a link-and-build pre-chorus; saves its big notes for the chorus; and saves some interesting chords for the chorus.

    50 most explosive choruses ever

    Explosive choruses – Spotify playlist