Does a Song Need a Chorus or a Bridge?
Dissecting the Essentials of Song Structure
Have you ever written a few really solid verses and then spent hours trying to come up with a chorus to suit them, but you drew a blank? Or maybe you’re a rapper writing lines and you don’t know whether you need a full chorus or a light hook? Don’t sweat it.
There was a time when the chorus of a song was considered the most important part of the entire track. Long before the advent of internet music streaming, hit songs were written to center around and lead everything to the chorus—to the point that verses in many top tracks were little more than filler. At a point, one had to wonder if it was a song with a chorus or a chorus with a song? But the times are changing and the prevalence of this rock and pop structure is waning. So let’s discuss the necessity of the chorus and what other structures you can employ for your lyrics.
Does a Song Need A Chorus?
No, a song does not need a chorus. A good pop song usually should have a repetitive and catchy line, but it does not have to be in the form of a chorus. Some songs work with nothing more than a repeated instrumental motif. Countless songs have been popular without using a chorus and, with the continuing blend of alternative styles into pop and rock genres, choruses are becoming less common and less differentiated than years past.
There is a worthwhile reason why many songs employ repeating sections, but there is no hard and fast requirement for those sections to be a full quatrain of chorus—or for the use of repetition at all. Each song you write is it’s own subjective piece of art, so there is no need for it to follow a set verse-chorus formula. Furthermore, the genre, tone, lyrical content, and intended mood of the song will all play a factor on whether you “need” a chorus or any repeating motif. Let’s briefly explore the difference between choruses and hooks, and how you can determine if your song would benefit from either.
What are the Differences Between a Chorus, a Refrain, and a Hook?
I have a full article dedicated just to learning the difference between choruses, refrains, and hooks. But here is a quick summary of how they vary:
- A CHORUS is it’s own stanza (set of lines) that stays (relatively) the same throughout the song. It will usually occur two or three times in total. Choruses tend to sound different than verses, often louder with more instruments and/or voices.
- A REFRAIN can be the same as a chorus but will sound quieter than the verses it comes between. When talking about folk styles of music, a refrain is another word for a burden—a single line that appears at the end of every verse.
- A HOOK is a single phrase that appears repeatedly and ties a song together. A hook can show up like a burden at the end of lines, can follow or precede each line in a verse, or can play in the background. Unlike a chorus or refrain, a hook can be a lyrical line or a recurring melody.
When Should I Add a Chorus or Hook?
The use of a repeating section is highly dependent on the style of song you are writing. Some genres of music are more likely to use the traditional idea of a chorus, while others completely abandon the old “rules” and neglect repetition altogether.
Radio-Friendly Pop & Rock
I would suggest you try out a chorus if your song is meant to be “radio-friendly” in a pop, rock, or indie format. Sentimental ballads, party bops, anthems, love songs, and anything meant as a mainstream single work very well with a chorus that repeats two or three times during the whole track.
The Verse-Chorus song structure has been the most typical format for decades and will likely hold it’s ground in years to come thanks to it’s familiarity and predictability among mainstream listeners. Despite that, I don’t want you to think that every single song you write must follow the exact same structure; all I’m saying is that a song with a repeating chorus is easier for fans to remember, and therefore more likely to get stuck in their ears.
The world of Hip Hop is a mixed basket and deviates more often from the traditional song structure norms. Older hip hop songs, from the 1990s and that fit into the “boom bap” aesthetic, often rely on a full chorus; newer rap songs can really go either way and hinge more on the style of the lyricist than the expectation of a genre’s structure.
Hooks fit impeccably well into modern hip hop, rap, and lo-fi tracks. Especially those that have a “slow jam” or jazz record vibe to them. Hooks in hip hop genres tend to take one of two forms:
- The instrumental riff, which is a melodic phrase persists through the song and gets played by a specific instrument, often a brass or woodwind; frequently this melody does not get picked up by the lyrics of the rapper. Example:
- The anchor line, which is an overarching single line of lyrics that gets sung, rapped, or spoken between every line of verse—or at the beginning of every verse. Example:
A chorus is also preferable for rap songs that feature a guest singer (I mean, they need something to sing if they aren’t spitting rhymes). If you have another rapper featured on the track, you may want to try an instrumental hook instead.
Storytellers & Folk
Songs that are written in a “storyteller” fashion can go either way; some story songs use chorus to tie the whole narrative together (an example is “Lullaby” by Shawn Mullins), but others will forego the use of a traditional chorus to maintain a constant flow of narration—a classic example would be “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan. Then there are songs that split the difference and employ a lyrical hook that ends each verse, i.e. the quintessential burden (a good example of this technique is “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash).
Indie & Fringe Styles
The more your style strays to the fringes of music, the less prevalent a chorus becomes. Folk songs may be written in a strophic form and therefore have no repetitions at all. An increasing number of popular songs blur the lines between verse and chorus: they may repeat the same verses as much as a chorus would. A good example of that style would be the works of LiL Peep, with songs like “I Crash, U Crash” or “Crybaby”.
The Key of Repetition
If you learn nothing else about choruses, let it be the lesson of repetition. The more times listeners hear a section, the more likely it will get stuck in their heads. That’s just basic neuroscience…and basic advertising. Repetition leads to memorization, which moves information from the short-term to the long-term memory. It’s how, a week ago, I remembered an All-4-One song off the top of my head and sang the entire chorus from memory even though I haven’t heard it in about 20 years.
Obviously, there is an added element to a good chorus besides repetition: it also needs to be simple enough and/or emotional enough for someone to remember it. Your chorus is not the place to show off your 25-cent words, it’s a place to hit the song home with relatable (i.e. 5-cent) words and phrases.
Examples of Songs without a Chorus
So choruses are valuable for the songwriter. But still some songs have become hits without using a traditional chorus. Usually, these hits instead relied on burdens or just sheer relatablility to become fan-favorites. Below is a selection of songs, in a variety of genres, that all made it in the charts and did so without a chorus:
- “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift (the phrase “I remember it all too well” is used as a burden at the end of verses)
- “A Boy Named Sue” by Johnny Cash (another use of burdens)
- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
- “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd
- “Everybody Dies” by Billie Eilish
- “Stay” by Lisa Loeb
- “Valentine, Texas” by Mitski
Does a Song Need a Bridge?
A discussion on the use of repetition in song would not be complete without mentioning the opposite of the chorus: the bridge. A bridge is a section that sounds different from the rest of the song and gives the listeners a break from the repetition of other sections. It may change keys, shift to another mode in the same key, feature a different drum patterns, and/or get quieter than the chorus. In rock music, it’s usually where you’ll find the guitar or keyboard solo. It almost always occurs after the second chorus, and is usually followed by the final chorus. In contrast to the chorus, the bridge normally appears only once. It’s almost like the musical equivalent of an intermission.
The bridge fulfills at least one of two purposes:
- It breaks up the monotony of the verse-chorus structure so the listener does not get bored or irritated.
- It gives the lead instrument a chance to shine. In rock music, this means the guitarist might perform an impromptu jam or explore variations on the song’s melodic theme. In pop music with a virtuoso-style singer, it’s the place where the vocalist gets to belt out some big “ohs” or “ahs” (a hyper-stylized example of this is the song “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” by Caroline Palocheck, a more traditional example would be the singing styles of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey).
But does your song need a bridge? I recommend that yes, you do need a bridge if your song has three choruses. That’s because two full choruses of 8 to 16 bars will start to wear on the ears; adding in a bridge will generate a little bit of intrigue, even some dissonance, before the song resolves back to the familiar chorus.
If you are writing a shorter song and only using one or two choruses, you probably don’t need a bridge. If you don’t want an instrumental solo, don’t worry about a bridge either. I personally have written tracks in all kinds of genres, but lately I’ve been writing more truncated pop songs that go straight to an outro jam or fadeout after the second chorus.
In summary, a chorus or a hook is a repetitive element that underpins a song’s theme—whether the theme is lyric, melodic, or both. A bridge is a musical section that interrupts the song dynamically and or harmonically—it sounds different from the verses and chorus, and gives the listener a little break to pique their interest.
Neither a chorus or a bridge is necessary in order to write a good song. If you prefer to write your lyrics in a narrative or strophic form, then skip them both. If you want to write standard pop or rock songs, I can recommend the use of both chorus and bridge. If you are a rapper writing modern hip hop tracks, I would instead suggest that you add a hook for musical consistency.
Other Articles to Consider
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