Song Anatomy 101: The Verse

By Holly Watson

Nathaniel Hawthorne said, "Easy reading is damned hard writing." He understood, successful novelist that he was, how much work it really took to get the words right. And a songwriter may have to work even harder to convey his story, given that he must accomplish it within the framework of two or three verses.

That's the job of the verse: to tell the story, set the tone of the song, introduce the characters, and establish the situation they are in. The first verse generally answers questions such as who? what? when? and where? That's where the listener is first drawn into the song and given the relevant information on the storyline or subject matter. The second and subsequent verses should stick with the storyline, adding new information, embellishing your previous character sketches, advancing the action, and, finally, providing some conclusion.

Given the importance of the verse in a song, I am always amazed when writers have convinced themselves that, as long as they've come up with a catchy hook/chorus section, they can get by with a meandering, unfocused lyric in the verse. Still others think that if they write a pretty tight first verse, they can be sloppy with the second. WRONG! Because while it's true that the listener will be walking away humming a hit hook after the first or second spin, it's the strength of that first verse pulling him into the song, along with the immediacy of the second verse, that will keep him wanting to hear it again and again.

Further importance given to the verse includes the introduction of the song's melody, another variable (besides lyric content) which sets the mood and gets the attention of the listener. (Note that some songs occasionally begin with the chorus, then move into the first verse.) Again, your verse melody is equally essential to a strong song as is your chorus melody. Don't skimp on its musical richness.

The melody in each verse should be essentially the same. It would prove difficult for the listener to follow the lyric as it unfolds in the verse, without the familiarity and predictability of the melody. Likewise, the corresponding lines of each verse should keep the same meter. Within a verse, it's good to vary the individual line lengths to keep the verse from sounding too sing-songy; but, from verse to verse, keep a consistency in pattern going.

The number of verses in your song will depend on the song form you use in constructing your mini-movie. If it's a story-song with lots of detail and sequential action, you might use the AAA form, using a greater number of verses than you would in an anthem or feeling-centered song. Most popular songs today use fewer verses than older-style works; two verses can do the job, perhaps with a bridge providing a bit more information in the lyric. If you precede your chorus with two verses at the start of your song, you need to make sure you have very strong lyric continuity between them. Every line should work to propel the song toward the delayed chorus. In such instances, some slight melodic variation or arrangement in production can provide enough dynamics to keep the song moving through the two verses.

The verse length can vary from song to song, the average number of lines running 4-6. Most professional songwriters have mastered the "less is more" rule, distilling information and painting pictures for their listeners in amazingly few lines. Remember, you're doing "flash art," not a novel.

Regardless of the number of verses in your song or the number of lines per verse, the most important line is the very first line of the very first verse. Opening lines get your listener involved with your song, so make them fresh and attention-getting. Too many songs have begun with "I woke up this mornin'," so think ORIGINAL when you're auditioning possible first lines.

And always keep in mind that song verses are not poetry. Try to be conversational in the verse and vary rhyme scheme so that you don't only rhyme at the ends of the lines. Again, some surprises and fresh approaches will keep the audience tuned in!