Song Writing

How The Beatles Crafted Killer Choruses

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David Rowley, author of Help! 100 Songwriting, Recording And Career Tips Used By The Beatles, explains how the Beatles crafted their choruses so effectively.
John Lennon once summed up the intention of the Beatles music as a desire to communicate. It's a pretty odd thing for a pop star to say, as singers nowadays might state a particular message, attitude or objective, but John Lennon just wanted to communicate whatever the message.

In this way, Lennon/McCartney choruses sum up succinctly the message the group wanted to share, with "All You Need is Love" or "We Can Work It Out" being great examples.

In summing up well, one should use simple language to help explain a complex issue as quickly as possible. In communicating well, one should use appropriate loudness, an appealing or persuasive message and repetition to ensure understanding. All of that is what you get with a Lennon/McCartney chorus.

Indeed, Beatles choruses are loud, simple and repetitive, often in contrast to their more complex verses and middle eights. Often they are a simple line repeated twice as on "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "Can't Buy Me Love," "We Can Work It Out," "Paperback Writer," "Eleanor Rigby," "Yellow Submarine," "All You Need Is Love" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." Sometimes they are a line repeated three times with a payoff line at the end: "Ticket To Ride," "Get Back," "Let It Be" and "Here Comes The Sun." Often these choruses will favor one-syllable words and at maximum only use a word that has two syllables or more - "Yellow Submarine" being an obvious exception.

This approach might appear a little dumb, but to me a chorus that fails to summarize, to communicate or to clarify is the dumb chorus. I hear many songs by singers with recording contracts that try to cram in two separate, if linked ideas on a chorus and give each of these ideas equal space. Doing this risks confusing the listener or even worse, not explaining the point of the song.

Another way of thinking about this is that a three-minute song only has time to do justice to a single emotion or line of thought. The chorus lyric should sum that emotion up alone and repeat it. It should not be adulterated with other ingredients. Furthermore, if you are going to repeat a line 6-10 times in a song then it better be the best possible summary of the message you want the listener to understand. So, you need to prioritize time getting that summary as succinct and true as possible.

If I were to choose two other key learnings from the Beatles choruses it would be firstly to always make them a sharp contrast to the verse. So, if the verse is quiet, the chorus benefits from being loud and if the verse is complex then the chorus benefits from being simple. If the verses are sung fast and urgently, to make the chorus message stand out it can pay off to sing the chorus slower. One of my favorite Beatles verse/chorus contrasts is on "Paperback Writer." Here, fast-paced verses cram in words quickly on lengthy verse lines, whilst the chorus has just two starkly emphasized (and beautifully sung) words. Another classic contrast, which is a distinctive Beatles sound, is to have a verse dominated by major and seventh chords with a single lead singer. Then to have the chorus in a minor key at which point the other Beatles come in on harmony vocals singing like angels. "Can't Buy Me Love," "Help!," "Let It Be," "Nowhere Man" and "Ticket to Ride" all do this.

August 14, 2018

David's book is available on Amazon

You might also like his 10 Commandments of Rock 'n' Roll

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Comments: 3

  • Stacy from San DiegoLennon / McCartney songs also emphasized a true break in the song: the bridge. This is a throwback to the times of Gerry Goffin/Carole King and even Holland / Dozier / Holland. Early 60’s-70’s had this as a catchy pop formula which WORKED. The bridge and the differentiated chorus worked as part of the whole being, a classic form of time art. The best bridges transport the listener to the deeper meaning of the song, then the chorus comes back and hits the message home.
  • Rob from AustraliaYou make some very good points. I feel Lennon in particular wrote what I call 'power choruses' in songs like Instant Karma, Across The Universe, #9 Dream, Power To The People, Mind Games, All You Need Is Love, Happiness Is A Warm Gun (last stanza). Cheers.
  • Phil Miglioratti @ Prayforsurfblog from Longboat Key FlWould enjoy you applying this insight to the music of The Beach Boys. Surf’s Up. I Get Around. Break Away. California Girls. Don’t Back Down. Surfin...
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