How to Write a Chorus

Before we talk about how to write a chorus we need to understand what a song chorus is and how it should function.

The chorus of a song is where the main message is revealed. The title or central hook of the song is emphasized in this section. The chorus is repeated throughout the song multiple times and is usually what people remember most. Sometimes the song chorus will have slightly different lyrics each time it repeats, but more often than not the lryics remain the same.

State The Main Theme of the Song

Whether you write the chorus first or last, you need to understand what the function of the song chorus is. This is where the overall theme or message of the song is stated. The verses (read my article What is a Song Verse) give specific details or angles that ultimately lead or point to the chorus.

The chorus is where the verses are given context and where they are all tied together even if they don’t seem to relate to each other. An example of this is the Beatle’s song, “Eleanor Rigby“. The first verse is describing Eleanor’s lonely life and the second verse is describing Father McKenzie’s lonely life. The verses are unrelated to each other but have a common theme, loneliness, which is communicated in the chorus.

My song, “Love Shining Through” is similarly constructed. Each verse is its own story but leads to the chorus where the verses are tied together with the common theme.. putting other’s needs above your own. Read through the lyrics and note how this is accomplished.

Love Shining Through
©Ronnie Lee Hurst/Dan Simmons

3am the baby’s cryin
Up for the third time tonight
You know mama won’t quit tryin’
To make sure that her little girl’s alright
Another sleepless night together
And lately there’s been quite a few
A soft lullaby and whisper goodnight
That’s love shining through

That’s a picture of love
An image that won’t fade away
A light that shines in the darkness
Turning the night into day
More than just words so easily spoken
But lacking the power of truth
Putting yourself at the end of the line
That’s love shining through

Doctor’s say she won’t get better
Her mind is drifting away
Her husband promised her forever
So right by her side he’s gonna stay
A promise made and never broken
That started when they said “I do”
Till death do we part he meant from the heart
That’s love shining through

If you only read the verses they have no obvious relationship to each other. It’s only when put in context with the chorus does the full meaning come through. Be sure to make the chorus the central hub of your song. The main message of the entire song is found in the chorus whether the verses relate to each other or not.


Vary Lyrics in the Chorus

In the description of a chorus I gave at the beginning of this article, I stated that sometimes choruses will have slightly different lyrics each time they appear in a song. Below is a song I co-wrote to show you an example of how that might look.

Christmas Crazy
©2009 Greg Swartzentruber/Ronnie Lee Hurst

(verse 1)
Grandpa hangs the mistletoe where no one else can see
Any girl who passes by he’ll smooch on instantly
Triples his electric bill with his display of lights
Sings Christmas carols way off-key with all his Christmas might

(chorus 1)
Grandpa’s goin’ Christmas Crazy
He’s bursting with the spirit
Everyone can hear it
Grandpa’s goin’ Christmas Crazy
Mistletoe’s a-swinging
Christmas bells are ringing
It’s rather quite amazing
Grandpa helps us all go … Christmas Crazy

(verse 2)
Grandma’s baking overtime, there’s cookies everywhere
She fills our cups with eggnog tries some brandy on a dare
Spent three months of pension checks on gifts for everyone
Backs Grandpa on piano and she even dances some

(chorus 2)
Grandma’s goin’ Christmas Crazy
She’s bursting with the spirit
Everyone can hear it
Grandma’s goin’ Christmas Crazy
Goodies that she’s bringing
Christmas bells are ringing
It’s rather quite amazing
Grandma helps us all go … Christmas Crazy

There’s really nothing wrong with all the holiday extremes
As long as we remember what Christmas really means

(chorus 3)
Let’s all go Christmas Crazy
Bursting with the spirit
So that everyone can hear it
Let’s all go Christmas Crazy
Show the joy it’s bringing
Get those Christmas bells a-ringing
Let’s make it quite amazing
Come on now let’s all go … Christmas Crazy

As you can see, each chorus is tweaked just a bit to align with what the subject was in the previous verse. Chorus 1 describes the general theme of how Grandpa is going Christmas crazy after verse 1 gave specifics about what he does. Then chorus 2 replaces Grandpa with Grandma after verse 2 lists the things she does. Chorus 3 changes to include everyone involved in the Christmas season after the bridge states that “we” should remember what Christmas really means.

This song is an example of how choruses can be slightly changed throughout the song but still communicate the general message of the song to the listener. Another example that just came to mind is “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin. As the story advances in the song you see the chorus slightly change but in a powerful way. The first two choruses are addressing the dad and the last two are addressing the son. If you’ve never heard it you should listen.

Place the Title/Hook in the Chorus

The chorus is repeated multiple times throughout the song. It is usually the part of the song that listeners remember most. The hook (read my article What is the Hook in a Song) or title of the song is strongly emphasized here. Sometimes the chorus is the only place where the title is mentioned. If you choose to only mention your title in the chorus make it catchy and part of a great hook. Here are examples of songs where the chorus only contains the title of the song repeated multiple times.

All You Need is Love – The Beatles
Only the Good Die Young – Billy Joel
I Will Always Love You – Dolly Parton
Panama – Van Halen

This technique drives home the title or hook of the song effectively. It doesn’t take long for the listener to catch on. Again, the chorus is usually what they remember most. I can’t overemphasize this.

song hook

I have a story to illustrate the chorus and how important the main hook of the song is to the chorus. I was driving to the store the other day and passed by an individual standing on the sidewalk waving and twirling one of those large business signs. Had he not been out there I never would have paid any attention to the oil change place he was working for.

The motion of that sign caught my eye and the words written on it, “Oil Change for $29.99” communicated what the message of the business was. That waving sign was the “hook” to draw me in.

Your song hook should be like that sign that drew my eye in. The hook in your chorus must attract the ear of the listener. It should draw them in enough to stay for the rest of the song. If it’s really good it will have them singing it long after the song is over. Think of the first time you heard Pharell Williams sing, “Happy“. Was that chorus stuck in your head for a while after that? It was in mine!

Make Chorus Melody Different Than Other Parts

The chorus melody should be different than the verses in order for it to stand on its own. Often times the chorus melody will rise above where the verse melody is. Think of that Dolly Parton song listed earlier, “I Will Always Love You“. Listen to that and notice when she gets to the chorus how it rises above where the verse melody is?

Listen to Whitney Houston’s version of that song and you’ll hear how the chorus just explodes to new heights when she arrives there. There are several long notes in the chorus that are drawn out for emotional effect. They are a different feel than the melody in the verses.

Another song that comes to mind is “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Each line in the verses has a fair amount of words that are sung with short rhythmic notes. Then when she gets to the chorus “I hope you dance, I hope you dance”, the melody rises up above the verse melody and the word “dance” is drawn out. This gives the chorus a completely new feel compared to the verses and really drives home the hook of the song.

Expand on a Pre-Chorus

Sometimes a songwriter will write a few lines between the verse and the chorus. This is known as a pre-chorus. Not all songs will have or need a pre-chorus. It depends on the song. Below is another song I wrote that does include a pre-chorus. Listen to the song as you read the lyrics and see how we used the pre-chorus to ramp up to the chorus.

Goin’ Down With the Joneses
©Bob Beckley | Ronnie Lee Hurst

(verse 1)
We always copied whatever our neighbors would do
If there was somethin’ they bought we would have to get one too
New truck, bass boat, or satellite dish
We never crossed nothin’ off our Christmas list

Then the stock market buried our 401k
I got laid off now I’m sorry to say

We’re goin’ down with the Joneses in a sea of debt
Down with the Joneses, and we ain’t hit bottom yet
The bills keep pourin’ in and there’s no one to bail us out
We’re goin’ down with the Joneses lord help us somehow

(verse 2)
Now it’s red beans and rice and a lot of macaroni and cheese
The piggy bank is broke and the dog’s down to eatin’ fleas
Yard sales, coupons, we’re feelin’ the pinch
It’s time to tighten up the belt another full inch

With the mortgage overdue and no money to pay
We turned to my mom but she turned us away

(repeat chorus)

I called up the preacher for some healin’ words
But I hung up the phone just as soon as I heard…

(repeat chorus)

Do you see how we use the pre-chorus as a transition to the chorus? Those extra lines help further the story of each verse and also ramp up the melody as it climbs to the chorus. Each pre-chorus has its own unique lyric. Sometimes pre-choruses use the same lyric each time they occur.

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” uses the same pre-chorus… “big wheel keep on turning, Proud Mary keep on burning”. As you can see there are no set rules that you have to follow. The option to use or not use a pre-chorus is up to you.

Make Chorus Chord Structure Different Than Other Parts

The key to making the chorus stand out from the rest of the song is giving it a different feel as compared to the other sections. A common technique is to change up the chord structure and make it different than the verses. That is one way to create a melody that will be different.

If you choose to use the same chord pattern as the verses you can try a higher register of melody in the chorus. If you start on the home or tonic note of the first chord in the verse, try beginning on the 3rd or 5th note above that when constructing your chorus melody.

That will automatically give you a different melody (and higher register) than the verses. Be sure to change the rhythm as well. If you have short notes in the verses try holding out notes for a longer duration in the chorus. Variety plays a huge role in making a song interesting to listen to. You have plenty of options to accomplish this.

Make Chorus Instrumentation Unique

Along with changing the duration and register of the notes and chord structure, what instruments you choose to use is a factor in creating a memorable chorus. If you have minimal instrumentation going on in the verses you may choose to add an instrument or two when the pre-chorus arrives (if you include a pre-chorus).

Then once the chorus comes you may decide to add more and make it really pop out to the listener. Adding background vocals when the chorus comes is effective as well. Listen to Faith Hill’s “Breathe” and you’ll hear how they used these techniques to create an explosive chorus.

A Chorus Analogy

Imagine that you’re out for ice cream and order a sundae. The person behind the counter scoops in your favorite flavor of ice cream and then asks what you’d like on it. You watch as the caramel is being poured on, the nuts sprinkled on, and finally, a blanket of hot chocolate syrup covers this sweet delight. You’ve watched each step of the process with eager anticipation. Now you’re ready for the payoff. That first big spoonful is soooo satisfying and just what you hoped it would be.

Now imagine if the person handing you the sundae fumbled it while handing it to you and it fell to the ground. That sticky mess starts spreading out across the tile floor. You wouldn’t be so happy with that, would you. Don’t be the songwriter that can’t deliver the goods. Build up the anticipation (in the verses) and follow up with a satisfying spoonful in the chorus!

Final Thoughts

There are many paths you can take while learning how to write a chorus. I’ve outlined some things to keep in mind as you start to create choruses for your songs. Whichever items you implement while writing your song choruses is completely your choice.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to make them memorable. By creating catchy hooks within the chorus you will be increasing the likelihood that the listener will remember your song after the last note is played. Go practice writing song choruses! You get better each time you write one.

Ronnie Lee Hurst

Hello! I've been a singer/songwriter for years and have a passion for crafting a new song. I also want to help teach the craft to new songwriters coming along.

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