As a panelist at a songwriting conference recently, I wandered into a nearby panel after mine was over. I heard an absolutely gorgeous song with the hook at the end of each verse. The panelist interrogated the writer harshly, “Where’s the chorus?!” I desperately wanted to scream at her that not all songs have choruses and despite our culture’s wide-spread short term memory loss, some stories are better told without them. Even though we’re dealing with a society whose art is often dictated by Nielsen ratings and whose attention span is a nanosecond, sometimes a repeated chorus is not only undesirable—it’s unnecessary.
Let’s review a little history, even though there are conflicting stories about how choruses emerged. Back in the day of the “standards,” “The American Songbook,” these songs were ALL pretty much AABA. Verse, verse, bridge, verse with the title in the first line of each verse or the last line. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” for instance, would not have been improved by a repeating chorus starting with the title. Think about it for a minute. And even into the time of the Beatles, would “Yesterday” have been a better song if McCartney and Lennon and created a big sing-along chorus with the same words each time that started with “Yesterday”?
So historically the title was frequently in the last line of the verse. I believe it sort of grew into a two-line refrain and split off like a pseudopod into a chorus around the late fifties or early sixties. This is actually conjecture but it makes sense to me that it could have happened this way. I mean the central idea of the song was contained in the one line, then in the refrain, then it grew into too many lines to be a refrain at the end of a section so it split off and became a chorus. And for most chorus songs, this works well. But some songs are much better with the title coming in by itself at the end of each verse. Country radio is full of these songs even today. And Billy Joel’s “I Love You Just the Way You Are” would not have been better, in fact it would have been made weaker by a repeating chorus. In many story songs—songs that follow one story all the way through—a repeating chorus is simply “wasted real estate” as I call it…wasting space in the song, that could have given us more story, for the sake of lyric repetition. Of course, it’s becoming more conventional than it used to be to change some of the lyrics in the chorus to advance the story a bit or give the listener some variation, while keeping part of the chorus lyrics the same, usually the first and last line at least. But when we’re following a story as we are in Bill Berry’s Piano Tuner with the Lazy Eye, the last thing we want is to be interrupted by a repeating chorus.
I realize that the “hit formula” is to have a chorus that drives the title home and the beats the melodic hook into the listener’s brain so that by the second time he hears it, it “sounds” like a hit because it’s so incredibly familiar to him. And far be it from me to kick an ear worm out of bed. I’ve made a living off of them for over 30 years. But there have been plenty of hits without choruses. Once we realize that we can write a big melodic hook chorus song whenever we want, then we move on to what is best for the song we’re writing. And sometimes the song just cries out to be AABA. Yes, even in 2015.
Harriet Schock wrote the words and music to the Grammy-nominated #1 hit, “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady” plus many songs for other artists, TV shows and films. She co-wrote the theme for “Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks,” currently showing in 30 countries. She and her band were featured in Henry Jaglom’s film “Irene In Time” performing 4 of Harriet’s songs. She also scored three other Jaglom films and starred in “Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.“ Jaglom’s recent film, “The M Word,” features Harriet’s song “Bein’ a Girl,” performed on camera at the end of the film. Karen Black wrote the play, “Missouri Waltz,” around five of Harriet’s songs, which ran for 6 weeks at the Blank Theatre in Hollywood as well as in Macon, Georgia. In 2007, Los Angeles Women in Music honored Harriet with their Career Achievement and Industry Contribution award. Harriet teaches songwriting privately, in classes and a popular online course by private email.