Light and Shadow Part 1: Verse and Chorus

I’ve been encouraging you to think of the major chords as light and the minor chords as shadow. In the next few articles, we’re going to focus on this metaphor and see how it can help us in our songwriting. The interplay of light and shadow will help us create interest, contrast, depth, and surprise in our songs.

Today we’ll look at one of the simplest ways to create contrast: by using only one kind of chord in our verse, and the other in our chorus.

If you’ve been following the Practical Chord Progression series up to this point, then you know that we already have six chords in the mix. In the Key of C Major, these are:

  1. I – C
  2. IV – F
  3. V – G
  4. ii – Dmin
  5. iii – Emin
  6. vi – Amin

Think of the way a painter or filmmaker uses light and shadow. Look carefully at the work of the Dutch masters or watch some film noir. You’ll notice that these techniques create depth, interest, and atmosphere. There’s no reason musicians shouldn’t self-consciously attempt to rely on analogous methods.

One of the simplest ways to create contrast and interest in a pop song is to clearly distinguish your verse from your chorus. This is a principle anyone interested in songwriting understands at some level.

One easy way to do this is by assigning the light chords to one and the shadow chords to the other. Instant contrast. This method is limiting, but I hope these exercises have helped illustrate how many different ideas are possible within constraints of this kind.

This is the first exercise where we’ll be writing a more or less complete song. All you need is a verse and a chorus, and that’s exactly what we’ll be creating.

First choose whether your verse or chorus will be the light section. Often the feel of the chorus is going to determine the theme of the song, so one method is to choose a light chorus for an optimistic song and a shadow chorus for a darker one. I recommend trying this exercise both ways.

Ok, now write your verse. If it’s going to be your light, only use the I, IV, and V. If it’s going to be your shadow, stick to ii, iii, and vi. For the purposes of this exercise, lyrics aren’t important. Those can come later.

Once you’ve got something you like, write your chorus using only the three remaining chords. Choruses are often more exciting than verses, so you can aim to raise the energy. But this is not universally true. What matters most is that there is contrast of some kind.

Need a little more guidance? Keep things simple at first. Start with a verse using light chords. Begin on the I and follow the steps in the neighborhood exercise.

Once you’ve got something you like, move to the vi to begin the chorus. There are many ways to do this, but one we’ve discussed already is the deceptive cadence. Move to the V in your verse, building a sense of anticipation for a return to the I. Now move to the vi instead and start the chorus.

Another very common move is to end your verse on the I and then move directly to the vi to start the chorus.

We haven’t looked at ways to write for minor chords alone, but one method is to think of the vi as the counterpart of the I, the ii as the counterpart of the IV, and the iii as the counterpart of the V.

Use this as a starting point! Your verse doesn’t actually have to start on the I and your chorus doesn’t have to start on the vi. But it is often helpful to master the basics first, and start experimenting from there.

Once you’ve created your song from this simple contrast of light and shadow, be sure to submit it for the betterment of the rest of us.

Next: Light and Shadow Part 2: Creating Depth Through Contrast

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John Thomas Mumm has been writing and studying music since 1997. He has recorded hundreds of songs and five self-produced albums. His day job is as an academic philosopher, and in his spare time he writes fiction and brews beer. Most recently, he's started studying the fine art of the cocktail. So far he's finding that the principles of balance in drink mixing aren't completely unrelated to the principles of balance in songwriting.

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