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What Is a Verse?
A verse is a repeated section of a song that typically features a new set of lyrics on each repetition. Compared to a chorus section, verses tend to vary more throughout the course of a song. And while choruses typically contain a song’s signature musical motif, the music of a verse is often written to complement the chorus music.
To analyze a verse in terms of traditional songwriting technique, consider a song with an AABA form or an ABABCB form. In these types of songs, the A section is called the verse. A song verse tends to have the following qualities:
- Engaging. In AABA or ABABCB form, the first verse is the first full section that the listener hears. Therefore it needs to engage them and hook them in. Something dull or clichéd could quickly have them changing the station or clicking “skip.”
- Lyrical. The verse is the part of the song where lyrics tend to vary every time—as opposed to the chorus which, in some songs, repeats the same set of lyrics whenever it’s played. So if your song is telling a story, or if you have a piece of poetry or imagery to convey, the verse can be the best place to share those ideas.
- Unique. Verses don’t need to be a fountain of hooks and earworms. Typically, that’s the job of the chorus. So if you have a particularly catchy musical phrase you’re looking to build your song around, consider utilizing it in the chorus and use the verse section to build to that point.
What Is the Purpose of a Verse in a Song?
Most pop songs return to the chorus multiple times, and often the chorus is the exact same every time. The verse, on the other hand, is a section that can be returned to multiple times but can have more variety each time it’s played. Think of the song “Lake Marie” by folk legend John Prine. In that song:
- The chorus is always the same. It’s catchy, melodic, and familiar. When Prine plays it live, hundreds of people sing along in unison
- The verse is spoken, not sung. This is far from a requirement, but it serves “Lake Marie” perfectly—both to establish a contrast with the chorus and to get out a lot of information
- The verse’s chord progression remains the same every time
- The verse’s length varies; some are longer than others
- The verse’s lyrics are different each time. Prine tells a linear story, interrupted by choruses, but which continues in each subsequent verse
The 3 Main Purposes of a Verse
Verses serve different functions in different songs. Here are a few ways they can be employed.
- Tells a story. In the aforementioned “Lake Marie” or in the Bob Dylan epic “Tangled Up in Blue,” the verse tells a continuing story. The lyrics are never the same and sometimes rhyme scheme doesn’t even matter. The primary purpose is narrative.
- Contrasts with the chorus. Sometimes verses are crafted to compete with the choruses they’re paired with. Think of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” where Kurt Cobain mumbles most of the verse. Contrast that with the song’s chorus, where Cobain loudly belts a single word: “Yeah.” Or think of “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne, where a fairly happy verse in the key of F major gives way to a chorus in the relative minor key of Dm.
- Talk, instead of sing. Plenty of bands have made hits by contrasting sung choruses with spoken, chanted, or rapped verses. Think of Faith No More’s “Epic”; Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By The Way”; Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang”; and The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations.” Meanwhile, Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed practically made careers out of talking their way through verses.
Tips for Writing Innovative Verses
You don’t have to recycle old formulas when composing verses to your own music. Here are some ways to mix things up:
- Use poetry forms. Your song verse can borrow from poetic verse and use lines of poetry. Some songwriters use iambic pentameter, made famous in the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare. Employing iambic pentameter relies on placing emphasis on certain syllables in a poetic line, but not others. This creates a certain rhythm. Some musicians use the rhyming couplets that were popular with early American poets like Anne Bradstreet. Some forego rhyme scheme altogether, as is done in the free verse poetry of everyone from Walt Whitman to Robert Graves.
- Make the verse just as catchy as the chorus. Don’t assume that the chorus is the only place for hooks. An undeniably catchy verse will have audiences singing along from the very first beat. Think of “September” by Earth Wind & Fire; “Basket Case” by Green Day; and “Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
- Make the song all verse. Some songs take an “all verse” form where there’s only one section, repeated multiple times with different lyrics. Think of the aforementioned “Tangled Up in Blue,” among other Bob Dylan songs. 12-Bar Blues songs, like “Sweet Home Chicago,” also take on all-verse forms. So, too, do epic tales with a long story to tell, like Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” (Learn more about blues playing here.)
In most songs, the verse is only one part of the larger puzzle. The best musical compositions are great from start to finish, so challenge yourself to write more than just a great chorus. Crafting fantastic verses is a good way to ensure a solid final composition.