Welcome to the latest entry in Twin Monarch’s series of Songwriting Guides. This is the first in our two-part guide on How To Write A Great Pop Pre-chorus. Feel free to share your own tips & tricks in the comments!
A pre-chorus (or just ‘pre’) is found in most pop songs. It’s the part of a song sandwiched in between the end of a verse and the start of a chorus. Although its big brother The Chorus is the one that gets all the attention, a solid pre is often what turns a good song into a great one. Would the Backstreet Boys’ Everybody be so beloved by audiences if it didn’t have the “Am I original? Yeah!” call-and-response pre-chorus?
We’re often asked how we approach writing a pre. What rules do we follow? What are the dos and don’ts? In response, we’ve put together our thoughts and suggestions that, while not definitive rules, should set you on the right track. Whether you’re a novice songwriter or a seasoned pro looking for inspiration, the following guidelines and practical tips will kickstart your creativity and help you write a killer pre.
4 Reasons to Use a Pre-Chorus
In the same way that a palate-cleanser in a fancy restaurant sets your tastebuds up for the main course, the primary function of a pre-chorus is to set up the chorus. It’s your choice whether your song needs one at all, but a good pre-chorus can add the following to a track:
- Signposting: The pre-chorus signals the approach of the chorus. Most people only half-listen to the radio while driving, so it helps to stick a signpost in your song that effectively says “Pay attention, ‘cause here comes the chorus!”
- Tension: Your pre-chorus can build tension and anticipation for what’s to come, with the chorus acting as euphoric release. Again, it’s all part of foreshadowing the oncoming chorus so the song explodes when the chorus hits.
- Bonus hooks: A pre-chorus gives you a great opportunity to fit in another hook or two. If you’re trying to write a pop smash, the more catchy lines and melodies the better (not that it has to be as memorably hooky as the chorus, but do keep it interesting).
- Change: Ultimately, if it’s a choice between having a really long samey verse or a shorter verse/pre combo, the latter is the one that will keep the listener engaged.
Length – How long should a pre-chorus be?
A pre-chorus can be as short as you like. 8 bars, 1 bar, even zero bars (i.e. you don’t have to have one at all). But, note that generally there is an unspoken upper limit. In a traditional pop song, the pre shouldn’t be longer than either the verse or the chorus, otherwise those other sections will be overshadowed. For example, in Dancing On My Own by pop colossus (and Calum Scott cover victim) Robyn, the verse is 16 bars long, while the pre is only 4 bars:
Yeah, I know it’s stupid,
I just gotta see it for myself.
Short and sweet. But not as short as the pre in Abba’s Dancing Queen. The second half of verse one goes a little something like this:
Anybody could be that guy,
Night is young and the music’s high,
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine,
You’re in the mood for a dance.
And tacked on right at the end is:
And when you get the chance.
That’s it. A one-line, 2 bar pre-chorus. Simple but effective at building tension.
At the other end of the scale is recent hit Cake By The Ocean by quasi-comedy troupe (and Jonas brother rehabilitation program) DNCE. Lyrics-wise, there’s a ton more words in the pre than in the verse (an issue we’ll address in Part Two of this guide) so we’ll just look at the number of musical bars for now. The verse and pre-chorus are of equal length: both are 8 bars long. As stated above, that’s about as long as a pre should go, i.e. the same as the verse and no longer. Otherwise, your verse just becomes some weird intro, and the pre usurps its role as verse.
Melody – Where should the melody sit?
There are always exceptions, but we recommend that the melody range of your pre-chorus should roughly sit between the ranges of your verse and chorus. The melody of a pre traditionally builds from a lower range of verse notes into a higher chorus, acting as a bridge between the two sections. Just be careful your pre doesn’t climb too high though – you want your song’s highest and most impactful notes to be in the chorus. If your melody peaks in the pre, your chorus ends up falling off a melodic cliff.
Don’t let your pre be Roadrunner to your chorus’ Wile E. Coyote
Again, the pre-chorus of Dancing Queen is a good example of a pre running up the scale range from a low verse to a higher chorus.
Chords – What chords should I use?
Wondering what chords to use? Some tips:
- Change it up: Start on a different chord to how your other sections start. If you’re in the key of C and your verse and chorus both start with a C chord, make sure the pre starts on an F or a G or whatever you fancy. Just make it different.
- Go minor: Again if you’re in C, start your pre on an A minor chord or an E minor chord, just to let things get a bit dark before your blindingly brilliant chorus.
- Change the frequency of your chord changes: If your verse chords change every two bars, have your pre chords change every bar. This will give your pre a noticeable shift in momentum as you build towards the chorus.
We hope the above gives you an idea of the pre’s purpose and how to approach writing one. In Part Two, we’ll take a look at lyrics. We’ll explore common lyrical themes you find in pres, different types of phrasing, rhyme and more.