As musicians, we sometimes forget that there are endless ways of building a piece and giving structure to music. We can rely on formulas that have worked before, ignoring many other wonderful possibilities. Sometimes we might assume that every song has to have the usual parts: an intro, a hook, a bridge, a verse and especially a chorus. But does it really?
Does every song have a chorus? No, not every song has a chorus. While most songs do have a chorus, there are plenty of great songs without one. These songs are just as effective and prove that is not necessary for a song to have a chorus.
Before we look into how songs without a chorus actually work, let’s think a little: why do most songs even have a chorus in the first place?
Why do Songs have a Chorus?
Let’s say we’ve just composed a verse. What happens next? Well, we have two basic options: we repeat the same thing or we create something new. Whichever way we go, there is only so much repetition that we can have before our music gets boring. And there’s only so many new ideas to write before the music loses shape and doesn’t make sense anymore.
In other words, we need to achieve a balance between familiar musical material (what our listeners have already heard) and new musical material (what they haven’t heard yet, or haven’t heard for a while). This is not a problem if we’re writing a nursery rhyme or a ringtone. These are just too short for any of this to come up. But we will inevitably run into this issue if we want to compose music of some length.
The longer a piece is, the more difficult it becomes to keep the listener engaged and interested. If the song is all the same, we run the risk of becoming boring. If the song is always changing, it becomes overwhelming leaving the listener confused about what’s going on.
This problem of balancing what is new with what is familiar is common to all musical styles. And the solutions to it are varied depending on the genre and on the musician creating it.
- In the classical symphony we get one or more themes: familiar melodies that are varied and developed in endless ways. Look at a great example in this analysis of Beethoven’s 6th symphony. The entire first movement is constructed out of the 4-bar theme.
- In film music we get leitmotifs: a musical snippet associated with a particular character or place. Every time that character appears on screen, we hear its theme in some way. Two of the most popular (and loved!) examples are from Star Wars (in which Darth Vader, Luke, Princess Leia, Yoda and so on have their own themes) and from Lord of the Rings (in which we hear specific themes for characters such as the hobbits, Frodo and Gollum).
- In songs, this same issue of the balance between unity and variety is often solved with the chorus.
The chorus is a very simple and elegant fix to the problem of the new vs. the familiar: since it’s different from the verses and every other part of the song, it provides variety. Since it also reappears in more or less the same way, it provides something familiar to listen to (bringing us back ‘home’ to something we already know).
This is interesting but it doesn’t stop here. The chorus does a lot more!
The chorus provides the emotional highs of a song. The verses are usually calm as they slowly build up a musical tension that reaches its peak in the chorus. In most songs, the chorus has the highest (and often the loudest) parts of the melody. When the chorus is over, the tension is released and the cycle begins all over again with next verse. We talk about tension and release in detail in this lesson.
Clearly, this is why the titles of songs are so very often in the chorus. The title hints at what the song is about and it’s usually in the chorus that we get to know what a song is actually all about! In fact, the title of the song is often repeated 3, 4, 5 or more times in the lyrics of the chorus. (Think for example about the choruses of the Beatles’ Let it Be and AC/DC’s Highway to Hell).
Songs without a Chorus
If the chorus is so helpful in songwriting, why are there so many songs without one? The short answer is that songwriters and musicians are creative people. We enjoy playing with different ways of writing music – we can use known formulas, but we can also alter them or avoid them altogether!
The longer answer, which we’ll discover here, is that there are plenty of other solutions to the variety vs. unity challenge we just talked about. Let’s look at a few of them now.
So how do Songs without a Chorus Work?
At the end of this lesson there is a list of songs without a chorus. Since we don’t have the time or space to analyse them all in detail here, I picked 4 of them: we’ll look at their structures and figure out how they work so well without a chorus.
1. All Along the Watchtower – Bob Dylan
This song is short enough not to need a chorus but that’s not all. Apart from the beautiful poem that make up the lyrics, what keeps it interesting is that it alternates between a sung verse and an instrumental section. It’s also important to observe that all of it happens under the same chord progression so all its sections stick together nicely.
All Along the Watchtower has been covered by many different artists. If you can, listen to the original by Bob Dylan and then listen to the version by Jimi Hendrix who plays his signature guitar solos in the instrumental sections.
2. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
This is not a short song, in fact it’s the second longest one in this list. So what keeps it interesting?
It’s that one by one, the musical sections (including the brilliant introduction) build up slowly to high points just like a chorus would. To my ears, the first high point is the first guitar solo at about the 2:40 minute mark (just after “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”).
After this, the songs never returns to the same mood. Instead we have entirely new material starting with “I see a little silhouetto of a man”. And of course, this section is famous for its playfulness with the backing vocals answering Freddie Mercury’s main lines. All of this leads to a new high point at the 4:10 minute mark which begins yet another entirely new section.
With the alternating instrumental vs. sung moments, this third and final section can never get boring either! Eventually, the song dies down on “Nothing really matters to me” and not a chorus in sight!
3. Hey Jude – the Beatles
Hey Jude works with 2 kinds of verses: one that always begins with the lyrics “Hey Jude” (let’s call it ‘A’) and another that doesn’t (let’s call it ‘B’). Just as we’ve seen already in other examples, the trick that keeps things interesting is to alternate between them.
The way the verses alternate is: AABABA. That means verse 1 twice, then verse 2, verse 1, verse 2 and verse 1 again.
However, that’s not all with this song. After all this we get that very beautiful and very famous outro on “Na na na nanana na”. The musical material for this section is practically new so we can label it ‘C’.
This makes the overall structure of Hey Jude as: AABABAC.
So in a way, this song is like 2 mini-songs one after the other and neither of them have a chorus: AAB is the first and ABAC is the second. What’s always intrigued me about this song is that the outro alone is just as long as the rest of the song!
4. I Walk the Line – Johnny Cash
On the surface, this is a really simple song. We get a verse with the same melody repeated 5 times. But if you listen closely, you’ll notice that each verse is sung starting and ending on a different note. In other words, the song changes key for every verse!
The key changes are smooth and they go through an interesting pattern too. Here’s what the keys would be if the song began on C.
- Verse #1: C major
- Verse #2: F major (up a fourth from #1)
- Verse #3: B flat major (up a fourth from #2)
- Verse #4: F major (down a fourth from #3)
- Verse #5: C major (down a fourth from #4)
So the key scheme is beautifully symmetrical in itself! Look at the pattern the notes make in notation:
With this pattern, Johnny Cash keeps the verses varied even though they’re essentially the same tune. As you listen to the song, notice also that bit by bit, the voice sings lower and lower until the song ends when he cannot sing any lower! So all in all this relationship between keys, verses and melody gives the song a sense of direction and a chorus is not necessary.
3 Common Questions about the Chorus
What is a song without a chorus called? We don’t have a specific term for songs without a chorus. But we do have several terms for specific song-forms. For example, songs that use the same repeating verse are in what’s known as strophic form while songs that have no repetitions are known as through-composed.
Most song structures are known simply by their own sections (labelled ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and so on like we did in analysing today’s songs). Some common examples include AABA, ABAB and ABAC.
Can a song start with the chorus? Of course, a song can start with anything. Sometimes it’s an instrumental introduction, sometimes it’s a sound such as bells, sometimes it’s a verse and sometimes it’s the chorus itself! As long as it makes sense to the songwriter/s, of course a song can successfully start with the chorus.
Plenty of examples come to mind:
- ‘Paradise City’ by Guns n’ Roses,
- ‘Payphone’ by Maroon 5,
- ‘Minority’ by Green Day,
- ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ by Bon Jovi
- ‘By the Way’ by Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Does a song have to have words? No, a song doesn’t have to have words. While the word ‘song’ is obviously related to ‘singing’, the word itself nowadays encompasses various types of music. So a song is usually sung but not always. In fact “an instrumental song” is a common phrase in everyday language.
There are also compositions that are sung but have no words! Two great examples are Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky featuring a 4 minute vocal solo and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise Op. 34 no. 14, which instructs the singer to sing the melody to any vowel they like.
List of Songs without a Chorus
Here’s a list of songs without a chorus organised from the oldest to the most recent.
|Song Title – Artist/s||Year Released|
|Stardust – Hoagy Carmichael & His Orchestra||1927|
|Begin The Beguine – Cole Porter||1938|
|The Fat Man – Fats Domino||1949|
|El Paso – Marty Robbins||1959|
|Let It Rock – Chuck Berry||1960|
|Tomorrow Never Knows – The Beatles||1966|
|All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan||1967|
|Hey Jude – The Beatles||1968|
|And When I Die – Blood, Sweat & Tears||1968|
|My Way – Frank Sinatra||1969|
|Pinball Wizard – The Who||1969|
|Space Oddity – David Bowie||1969|
|The Thrill Is Gone – B.B. King||1969|
|Take A Pebble – Emerson, Lake & Palmer||1970|
|Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin||1971|
|Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen||1975|
|Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd||1975|
|Complete Control – The Clash||1977|
|Isn’t She Lovely? – Stevie Wonder||1977|
|Up the Junction – Squeeze||1979|
|America – Neil Diamond||1980|
|Rapture – Blondie||1980|
|Tattooed Love Boys – Pretenders||1980|
|Elton’s Song – Elton John||1981|
|After All – Ed Bruce||1982|
|Anywhere I Lay My Head – Tom Waits||1985|
|Children’s Story – Slick Rick||1988|
|Lullaby – The Cure||1989|
|Coma – Guns N’ Roses||1991|
|Country Feedback – R.E.M.||1991|
|Why – Annie Lennox||1992|
|Chelsea Girl – Ride||1995|
|Atmosphere – Joy Division||1996|
|Make You Feel My Love – Bob Dylan||1997|
|Paranoid Android – Radiohead||1997|
|Sing It Again – Beck||1998|
|Unsent – Alanis Morissette||1998|
|Apple Blossom – The White Stripes||2000|
|Anything You Want – Spoon||2001|
|The Last Song I’m Wasting On You – Evanescence||2006|
|The Angel and the One – Weezer||2008|
|Sometimes – Black Stone Cherry||2014|
|Solo (Reprise) – Frank Ocean||2016|
|Sorceress – Opeth||2016|
|Spectre – Radiohead||2016|
|Arose – Eminem||2017|
|Blissing Me – Björk||2017|
|Garage Palace – Gorillaz||2017|
|Is This The Life We Really Want? – Roger Waters||2017|
|Sky Musings – Wolf Alice||2017|
|The Ultracheese – Arctic Monkeys||2018|