What was born in the 60s, blew up in the 80s, and never really went away? I’m not talking about Will Smith, I’m describing the pre-chorus – an optional, but highly colorful addition to song structures.
As a bassist, I empathize with the humble pre-chorus. It’s underutilized, unappreciated, and often passed over. Countless hits only rely on the verse-chorus song structure, especially rock and pop songs. Even so, a good pre-chorus is an important weapon. An arrow to draw from your songwriting quiver to pierce the heart of your audience.
After all, there will be times when you love your verse and chorus as individual parts, but they don’t mesh together.
In this article, I’ll walk you through the ins and outs of a pre-chorus. We’ll examine their definition, form, and what purpose they can serve in your songwriting. I’ll also be looking at plenty of examples in popular music for you to learn from.
Hopefully, they will spark some ideas that you can use in your songwriting. Let’s get to it!
What Is a Pre-Chorus?
In music, a pre-chorus refers to a section between the verse and chorus that generally doesn’t share the chord progression of either.
In simple words, it’s an ‘optional’ verse-to-chorus transition or an add-on to the chorus. There are no binding rules that define the qualities of a good pre-chorus, although it is most commonly used as a ‘lift’ (build-up) in pop music.
Do I Need a Pre-Chorus?
No, not really. A pre-chorus is completely optional regardless of the genre and style of music. You can imbue a pre-chorus with suspended chords to creating a floating feeling, or use it as an exaggerated quality before an open-neck chorus.
Most of the time, you will only want one per song. The trick is to insert one only when the composition truly calls for it – when it has a deliberate intention and a specific purpose to the verse/chorus relationship. To investigate this, let’s look at some common song structures and figure out how a pre-chorus can work alongside the other elements.
Song Forms: Common Structure
Song sections are labeled using the alphabet (A, B, C). Songs usually use the following structures:
While ABAB is the most commonly used structure, on the other hand, AABA is somewhat experimental and avant-garde in nature. Norah Jones, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Billy Joel have all used it.
Bear in mind that these are just the common structures in modern music. You aren’t obliged to follow them and you can change the parts at will in your material. For this post, we’ll only focus on ABCABC, the song form that relies on the pre-chorus.
Function: How To Use A Pre-Chorus In The Song Structure?
Unless you’re writing a simple pop song, there are multiple ways to use a pre-chorus in your songwriting. Of the five that I’ll pick apart, each method can create a lasting impact on your listener. I’ll use examples of songs that best demonstrate how to use a pre-chorus and provide some analysis for each.
1. Between a similar-sounding verse and chorus
A pre-chorus is a good tool to reach for when you are struggling to create ‘separation’ between the harmonic or rhythmic aspects of the two main sections – the verse chords and the chorus. It’s perfect for any song where the verse and chorus melodies sound very simple or similar.
Stevie Wonder used it in Sir Duke. He uses a high-flying pre-chorus to contrast the simple/catchy verse and chorus transitions. I Wish is another excellent example. However, Stevie uses harmonically complex structures that often borrow chords from parallel keys.
In riff-based songs, a pre-chorus can help create respite or act as a counterpoint to the melodies. Metallica does this in ‘Enter Sandman’ when the tight punchy rhythms and vocals give way for a slow pre-chorus. There is a change in texture before you enter the chorus with a relentless gut-punch.
Conversely, a pre-chorus can also sound great if moving from the verse to the chorus sounds too abrupt.
2. Build up between the verse-chorus
A pre-chorus is a crucial songwriting tool that creates a harmonic/rhythmic build-up to the chorus. Generally, the build-up can be interpreted as creating gradual “energy” that will peak or explode when the chorus hits the audience. Pre-choruses can typically be quite short, such as in Enter Sandman.
A pre-chorus can have a vocal melody that continues from the verse and builds up to the energy of the chorus. You can achieve this rhythmically, with choppy parts, or with a gradual increase in volume – as is common in EDM, rock, and pop songs.
Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit is a good example of this. The song has a verse and chorus that use the same chords (F-A#-G#-C#). Then the pre-chorus (Hello…’) gradually builds the energy and volume to launch into the violent chorus. Let’s look at one more example:
High Hopes was one of the biggest hit singles in 2018. The ultra-theatrical Panic! At the Disco is Franken-candy for anyone who wants to nerd out on complex structure and music theory. High Hopes is one of those ‘strange detours’ that uses the pre-chorus masterfully – twice!
‘Mama said don’t give up, it’s a little complicated. All tied up, no more love and I’d hate to see you waiting’
The first time around (1:03) the pre-chorus brings the energy to a grinding halt with a part-nervous part-murky build-up to the iv (instead of the IV). It’s a common songwriting technique to use a minor-IV instead of a major fourth. It’s a chord borrowed from the parallel minor. The second time around (2:02), they use the same pre-chorus but twice the length.
You can hear something similar in Coldplay hit Shiver. However, they’ve used a slurry of elements that take you from the B7 at the end of the verse to the EMaj at the end of the pre-chorus – ready to launch you into the B chord again.
3. That chorus – Make it POP
The pre-chorus is often called a lift when it’s used in a ‘are you ready for the chorus’ manor. Charlie Puth employs the pre-chorus (‘I know that dress is karma’) with mastery in his hit single ‘Attention’
The first time around (0:29), the pre-chorus emerges from a choppy/staccato verse. It uses sustained and spread out sounds that dip just a beat before the chorus. The chorus, in turn, is a head-bobbing kick/bass groove that propels you into a new and more energetic dimension.
He uses the same concept in the rest of the song (1:27) but he splits it into two sections. The third time around (2.27) he goes ultra-minimal with staccato arpeggios in the background with his raw emotive vocals to contrast it.
Moreover, Charlie Puth splits each of the three pre-chorus sections into two parts. The second time he starts strong and ends relatively restrained and the third time he starts restrained and builds up to the chorus. He also uses the drop at the end of each pre-chorus to make the chorus pop.
As another exercise, you can also study Charlie Puth’s use of the pre-chorus in The Way I Am.
4. Tension, release, or tonic – Dominant function
The pre-chorus allows you to stray from the tonic to build tension. This tension, in turn, can be resolved in the chorus, to give a feeling of satisfaction as you move back to the tonic. The most common and somewhat clichéd way to do this is to use the dominant function in the pre-chorus i.e. the V7 chord (G7 in the key of C).
When ABBA sings ‘and when you get that chance…’ in Dancing Queen (1:22), that’s all there is to the pre-chorus. A nifty one-liner over 2 bars of music. It’s short but it serves a very important purpose, building tension with the dominant function for the resolution in the chorus.
Mind you, Dancing Queen is a tastefully composed song with a very interesting use of chords in the key of E. The pre-chorus occurs twice in the song. Each time the verse is followed by a single line with the ii-V (F#m – B7).
The ii-V paves the way for the dominant-tonic resolution and a very catchy chorus that lifts you back up. They also linger for a bar with a legato phrase (played on strings) that makes the resolution more satisfying.
You need a solid understanding of chords and harmonic function to use more obscure and unusual chords. Hall & Oates use some tasty seventh chords in their hit I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) in the pre-chorus (‘I’ll do anything that you want me to’).
If you want to use this in your songwriting, any dissonant chord will do the trick. Secondary dominant chords can also be used to create interesting pre-chorus sections.
5. As an extra hook
If the 1980s were a pre-chorus factory, Def Lepard was the fulcrum. Since 25 million people bought the album, there’s a good chance you’ve heard Hysteria. The title track is one of the many Def Lepard songs that uses a pre-chorus (‘I gotta know tonight’).
In Hysteria, they use a flurry of added tones and sus chords such as Cadd9 and Dsus4. I discussed how to use sus chords with the parent chord to create a feeling of movement without going anywhere.
However, Def Leppard had a penchant for using the pre-chorus as a third section, which would often be driven by sustained chords and group vocals before they launched into their typical catchy choruses. You can hear this in Rocket, Love Bites, Animal, and Pour Some Sugar On Me.
5 Pro Songwriting Tips for Pre-Chorus
Now that we’ve looked at how you can use pre-choruses, let’s look at some general tips to keep in mind when writing one.
1. Listen n’ Learn
Listening will go a long way with leveling up your pre-chorus game. Start by listening out for a pre-chorus in any song you hear. Try and figure out what purpose it serves and what elements are being used to achieve it. You can then use these ideas in your compositions (with your own flair, of course).
Generally, a pre-chorus section is a ‘transition section’. It should not be as long as a verse or chorus. It is typically half the length of the chorus but can range from 2 to 8 bars.
This is a guideline rather than a rule as there are numerous variations in length/duration. Songs like Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger have a pretty long pre-chorus.
Don’t center a pre-chorus around the tonic. For example, if you are in the key of C, you don’t want the pre-chorus to start on C. Leave that resolution or feeling of ‘coming home’ for the chorus section of the song.
4. Keep it simple
A pre-chorus shouldn’t hit harder than the chorus in terms of overall feel and dynamics. Secondly, it should not stand out too much from the verses or chorus. Otherwise, it will feel like three sections in succession – A to B to C. This doesn’t apply if you intentionally want to use it as an extra hook.
5. Waste not, want not
Don’t throw in a pre-chorus just to flaunt your songwriting skills. Skip it if your verse/chorus transition is already great. If you’ve written a pre-chorus and don’t want to throw it out, see if it can be used as a bridge instead.
From Chris Martin to Gnarls Barkley, from Bob Dylan to Iron Maiden, plenty of artists have used pre-choruses in their work. The simple trick is to insert one only when the chord changes or the composition truly calls for it.
I’ve shared the common ideas to steer the listener and compose a fully realized song. Even so, how you use it in your record is totally up to you.
Some songwriters have an inherent knack for it and others develop it through practice. Don’t be afraid to start basic – a formula must be fully learned and internalized before you can fully use it to your advantage.
For more great songwriting and music theory tips, check out our other articles: