There’s no “formula” to write a great chorus or hook, but these techniques can spark ideas to write, rework, or critique your own songs.
How do you write a great chorus? You know, something that will really stick in your ear and never get old?
Of course, there’s that certain spark, that creative ingenuity that can hit us every now and then like a bolt of lightning. But what do you do when that creative spark just isn’t there? When you can’t seem to get your thoughts together into a solid hook?
To get your ideas flowing, it can help to take a step back and look at the tried and true music theory techniques that we see at work time after time in just about any new hit that graces the Billboard Hot 100.
These are by no means a “formula” to write a great chorus or hook, but there are techniques you can draw from to spark ideas, rework a chorus you feel might be falling a little flat, or to critique your own hooks.
A motif is just about as basic as you can get in the vast world of music theory, but the power cannot be overstated. Motifs are short musical ideas used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, grooves, and just about anything else foundational to a song. You can create melodic motifs, rhythmic motifs, and even harmonic motifs and string them together and manipulate them in many ways to create a strong, cohesive sound that stays fresh and interesting.
Motifs can be incredibly simple (and a lot of times it’s the simple ones that really stick in our heads). One of my all-time favorite motifs is the guitar part for “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. It uses only one pitch and the same rhythm for the entire song, but it is one of the strongest guitar parts I’ve ever heard in a pop or dance tune. It creates an incredibly strong rhythmic foundation for just about everything else in the song.
Next time you’re working on a chorus, try to simplify it down and think about the motifs you’re using. Then, try modifying or making small changes to those motifs in a later chorus. This helps create a lot of interest and keeps the song from feeling monotonous while still maintaining that strong hook.
If you’re looking for another example of this, check out “Get Lucky.” Listen for small manipulations in the incredibly simple hook and notice how it keeps the song interesting. We take a deeper look at the music theory at play in “Get Lucky” and nine other hit songs in the Inside the Hits eBook. Download it for free.
Another really useful music theory concept that will help you write a great chorus is the concept of a sequence. Sequences are ways to take a particular motif or set of chords and transpose them up or down in a certain pattern.
Our ears naturally identify patterns in music (even if we don’t have any musical training), so this use of patterns creates a lot of expectation and anticipation as the listener’s ears predict what’s coming next. You can use sequences to create a strong expectation as you lead up to the hook, or you can build it up and thwart that expectation by breaking the pattern to add tension.
There are two main types of sequences: harmonic and motivic. Harmonic sequences are made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern. Motivic sequences are made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using a specific interval pattern.
Two great examples of both of these concepts are Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”
“Canon in D” uses a harmonic sequence that follows an interval pattern: down by a 4th, up by a 2nd (D to A, B- to E-, etc.).
“Hips Don’t Lie” uses the same harmonic sequence but in a minor key. In both pieces of music, the motivic sequence follows the harmonic sequence. So every time the harmonic sequence repeats, so does the motif. You can hear this in the violin part in Pachelbel’s “Canon” and in the trumpet part in “Hips Don’t Lie.”
Take a listen for yourself and notice how your ear starts to predict where the music is going.
Take advantage of form and repetition
Once you have built a strong set of motifs and perhaps used harmonic or motivic sequences, the ways you use form and repetition can play a huge role as you write a great chorus.
First, if you want the chorus to stick, you need to make it the focus of your song: many pop songs get to the chorus in 60 seconds or less. It also helps a lot to write the hook (and sometimes the verses) over the same chords and groove as the chorus.
Second, use a song form that repeats the chorus a lot. Repetition (with small variations) is what will get that hook stuck in people’s heads. If you have too many sections other than the chorus, the power you want to the chorus to have may start to disappear.
A common structure for pop song form is:
Analyze the hits
It goes without saying that if you want to write hooks and choruses like the greats, you should study their work. Make a habit to try to really dissect the choruses from your favorite songs to understand what’s going on. What are the motifs at work? Do they use sequences? How much repetition is used? How are repetitions manipulated and varied to keep the listener interested?
Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets, and now, along with Daniel Roberts, he’s developed a new approach to reinvent the way music theory is taught. Hit Music Theory is the best and most practical way to learn music theory. Taught in context of modern hits, you learn how top songwriters are applying theory and how you can use it in your own music.
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18 thoughts on “Music theory can help you write a great chorus”
I DISAGREE ON THE PART OF USING REPETITION SO MUCH, for a good thing can only go so far. Just like in telling a Joke, the 2nd time it is not as funny and a third time… Oh please, really?!!
Some repetition is okay as long as not over and over again, for then it just becomes “Nagging.”
It is the same with “Note Phrases” that repeat a small section over and over again, it is “Nagging!”
Be creative and give variety to a song and don’t use the same phrases all the time in Wording, as well or it becomes “Nagging,” again.
Everything is good, but in Moderation. Don’t Beat People To Death with the same old junk. Be skillful and creative and put out variety and not copy others in your style, voice and Chord Changes. When as an Artist we mimic others to learn how to create, but once we are Mature as Artists we branch out to find our own way, not because it is popular, but because it is who we have become.
Charles R. Batchelor of “Higher Call” Music and Photography
Thank you for the article. Some useful info.
But please do away with the “momentum” scrolling on the site; it makes it harder to read and navigate.
Yeah this ghetto man I feel you dog writing great hooks an working with a producer an all really brings out the the record you know the funniest thing is that I was reading a page about paramount songs about song writing an a few of those things that they were talking about I happen to apply the same method an it works so I know you saying that then you must know what you talking about check this man I gotta get back to work I left new workers unsupervised an the manager ain’t around an I ain’t trying to get fired cause music ain’t paying the bills right now so I gotta go love to chat some other time sit back and let ghetto rock the show
I’m sure this was not intentional, but the author mis quotes the Canon in D progression. He goes down a 5th instead of a 4th: D A b f# instead of D A b e (I use lower case for minor).
D down to A is a 4th in the music school I went to!
D up to A is a 5th. Pachelbel’s progression definitely feels like a downward movement.
A lot of technical articles on the net ask if this article was helpful or not? I would say ‘not’ or definitely not. A lot of words to sum up one major point. It’s all about the hook, ’bout the hook, ’bout the hook.
Great article. So much useful and full of stuff to think about and try out. Thanks