Thanks to Bobby Gilles from My Song In The Night for sharing these practical songwriting “glossary” tips. Republished with permission. Originally published at: http://mysonginthenight.com/2013/04/23/common-song-elements-verses-choruses-bridges-oh-my/
The verse is the part of the song that tells a story (this might be a plot-driven story or the exposition of a theme, a doctrine or attribute of God or a feeling). A verse provides insight leading to the chorus, which is the main message of the song. Subsequent verses move the story forward or “color” the chorus in a new way, deepening our understanding of the chorus.
Worship songs may have one verse, two, three or even more, as we’ll see when we discuss common song forms. And while the melody and meter of each verse remain the same, the lyrics of each verse must advance your song’s concept. If you write a song in which two verses do the same thing, you don’t need one of them.
Most verses in worship songs are either four lines long (expressed as eight musical bars) or eight lines long (sixteen musical bars). For example, the verses in “God Of Wonders” by Steve Hindalong and Marc Byrd are four lines long, whereas the verses in Stuart Townend’s and Keith Getty’s “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” are eight lines long. Of course there are many exceptions.
A pre-chorus is an optional song element that is really a sub-element of the verse.
The pre-chorus is typically a two- or four-line section, in between the main body of the verse and the chorus. Some pre-choruses may have an odd-number of lines, which can increase the feeling that something is missing – something, of course, that you will deliver in the chorus.
Another name for the pre-chorus is the “climb,” because this part of the verse heightens the anticipation of the congregation for the approaching climax in the chorus. Most of the time, the melody will literally climb from the notes in the verse to the higher chorus. Many contemporary worship songs contain a pre-chorus, such as Matt Maher’s “Your Grace Is Enough”:
“So remember Your people
Remember Your children
Remember your promise, O God …”
Sometimes the pre-chorus that follows the beginning of each verse will have different lyrics. Other times, the second pre-chorus will repeat the lyrics of the first. Regardless, all pre-choruses in a song will have the same melody. In the above example, Maher’s pre-chorus lyrics remain constant after each verse. Kristen and I do the same thing in our “Bless The Lord Who Gives And Takes” (which we’ll release soon as a free download). The pre-chorus following each verse says:
“Lord, You gave and You took,
Somehow for our good;
Our eyes burn with tears
But they turn to You …”
The chorus is the part of the song that usually contains the title, the main theme of a song, and the big lyrical and melodic hooks. A chorus is a distinct lyrical section and is almost always a distinct musical section as well.
Because of these things, and because it is repeated several times, the chorus is the part that most often sticks to the listener’s mind. If we compare a song to a political speech, the verses would be the details, and the chorus would be the memorable slogan.
The melody of your chorus should be catchy, while the lyrics summarize the emotion and theme of the song. No matter how many times you repeat the chorus in a song, the chorus melody should remain constant. The lyrics almost always stay the same as well (writers of “story songs” sometimes break this rule to show us how the events described in the verses are affecting the message of the chorus. You’ll find this most often in country music).
The title almost always appears within the chorus, typically at the beginning and sometimes at the end. Sometimes the title appears at the beginning and end, as well as other places in the chorus. When Shannon Lewis, McKendree Augustus, Gary Durbin and I wrote the first draft of “Your Will,” we began the first two lines of the chorus with the words “Your will.” Paul Baloche advised us to end the chorus with those words as well, and it made the chorus much more effective when recorded by Saint Lewis.
A refrain is not the same thing as a chorus. The difference between the two is that a refrain is a line that is repeated at the end of every verse, resolving the verse (often, the lyric of the refrain is also the title of the song). A chorus, as we’ve seen, is a distinct musical section that follows the verse. Most choruses are longer and more thematically robust than refrains.
The refrain is part of an older music tradition than the modern chorus, a tradition that includes hymns, sea shanties and other folk songs. Most songwriters in the modern American pop tradition who have used refrains are those who are also fluent in older folk music traditions. For instance, at the end of each verse of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” they repeat the line “Like a bridge over troubled water.” And Bob Dylan ends each verse of “Blowin’ In The Wind” with “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Hymns that include refrains include “All Creatures Of Our God And King” by Francis of Assissi. Each verse ends with:
O praise Him! O praise Him! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Other examples of hymns that use refrains include “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Modern worship songwriters often write bridges (containing lyrics and music). When they do, the bridge usually follows the chorus (as we’ll see later, some worship songs place the bridge between verses, and leave out the chorus altogether). It is shorter than a verse and differs melodically, lyrically and rhythmically from both verse and chorus.
Unlike a chorus, a bridge leaves us hanging, harmonically (and often lyrically). Like physical bridges that run across rivers, the bridge is not a destination – it’s the way we get from one point to another. The bridge provides a melodic contrast, and it provides either new information or a new perspective before leading us back into the chorus (or verse).
Many of Chris Tomlin’s songs are known for their emotionally charged, melodically high bridges. Think “How Great Is Our God,” “I Will Rise,” “Not To Us,” and “Whom Shall I Fear (God Of Angel Armies).”
Bobby Gilles is Sojourn Church’s Director Of Communications, and works with Lead Pastor Daniel Montgomery to communicate Sojourn’s mission and vision. He co-wrote the children’s book Our Home Is Like A Little Church, published by Christian Focus. As a former radio disc jockey and music director, he was twice named a National Top 10 Finalist for Gospel Music DJ of the Year.