What is a chorus? And for that matter, what is a verse?
These seem like fairly general music terms that we all know, but do we?
I’m pretty sure that most people could at least tell you that they’ve heard of the terms chorus, verse, and bridge before, and could most likely give you a general definition.
Well, at least as far as pop music goes.
But in musical theatre, these things have a slightly different meaning. And it has dawned on me slowly over the past several years that there are many creatives in the industry (directors, performers, etc., and yes, some writers) who are not exactly sure what these terms mean when applied to musical theatre music.
So, what do they mean?
Most pop music of the past 40 years has a very specific and formulaic song structure, and it’s one that is extremely familiar to us. It goes something like this:
There might be some variations to this theme - for instance, a lot of more recent songs include a Pre-Chorus before the Chorus comes back. Or perhaps there’s fewer Verses, or there aren’t 2 Choruses at the end of the song.
Either way, this is a tried and true song structure for pop music, and an excellent formula for anyone looking to write in the genre.
What about theatre music? Is it just as formulaic?
Well, yes and no.
“Thanks, Michael. What a clear and concise answer.” Hold on, dear reader!
Musical theatre doesn’t have an all-permeating full song structure because songs in a show can do work in a thousand different ways. And the structure of the song changes depending on what kind of work the music is doing.
As a very basic example, music in theatre can be (very generally) either a “song” or a “musical scene.” A “song” is more self-contained and generally does work for one character or a small grouping of characters, whereas a “musical scene” might be a more all-encompassing number that goes back and forth between sung lines and dialogue, and likely includes a large group of singers or the entire ensemble.
And just based on that information, you can see how you wouldn’t want to structure a “song” and a “musical scene” the same way.
But that’s just one example of many ways that musical theatre music can differ in structure, based on the kind of work it is doing in the show.
“So, how does this relate to Verse and Chorus terminology?”
In pop music, the Verse is the part of the song where the music repeats, but the words change.
Here’s an example from Adele’s “Hello”:
Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet…
Hello, can you hear me? I’m in California dreaming about who we used to be…
Same melody (basically), but different lyrics. And these come before the first Chorus, though she also does another Verse later on. (Hello, how are you?…)
Now, in theatre music, a Verse does similarly come before the Chorus and does a lot of introductory work in the song, but we generally only hear that music one time.
It comes before the song proper and sets up what we’re going to sing about in the rest of the song. It also helps go from dialogue into singing less jarringly than suddenly belting face in the middle of a spoken line.
A classic musical theatre example would be from “If I Loved You” in Carousel. Julie leads into the song proper by singing:
“When I worked in the mill, weaving at the loom, I’d gaze absent-minded at the roof. And half the time the shuttle’d tangle in the threads and the warp’d get mixed with the woof. If I loved you…And somehow I ken see, jest exactly how I’d be…”
She sets up for us that she’s gotten lost in thought in the past about what it would be like to be in love with someone, before she then sings a song describing what that would be for her or mean to her if she were in love.
So, the Verse is the introduction. What’s the Chorus?
Chorus, Hook, and Refrain
Let’s start with the Hook. Both pop and musical theatre songs have them. What is it?
Hook - A musical and lyrical idea, often a phrase, word, riff, or passage, that encapsulates what the song is about and repeats in a way that catches the ear of the audience.
So in “Hello” that would be both:
Hello from the other side…and
Hello from the outside…
And in “If I Loved You” it would be:
If I loved you…
As you can see, in musical theatre, the hook and the title are also often the same.
What about the Chorus itself?
Well, like the way that the Hook is repeated throughout a song, in Pop music we actually repeat the entire Chorus every time we sing it. Usually, when the Chorus comes back, we sing the entire thing again - both music and lyrics.
So the Chorus of “Hello” is really:
Hello from the other side
I must've called a thousand times
To tell you I'm sorry
For everything that I've done
But when I call you never
Seem to be home
Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I've tried
To tell you I'm sorry
For breaking your heart
But it don't matter, it clearly
Doesn't tear you apart anymore
And because the entire Chorus repeats in a pop song, we can also simply call it the Refrain. It’s something that repeats and that we all can sing together.
Theatre music has a different usage of Chorus altogether.
In order to give more information about the characters and move the plot forward, theatre music cannot waste valuable music time repeating itself as often as pop music does. Sometimes we can and we do, especially in big ensemble songs and musical scenes, but not nearly as often.
Instead of having an entire Refrain every time the Chorus rolls around, theatre music relies on the Hook alone to do the full repetition work. The rest of the words are there to continue the storyline of the show, which is why we go to the theatre after all - to see and hear stories being told.
Now, there will be melody repetition in the Chorus, but it’s usually based on one of two structures.
AABA and ABAC
“What is this strange conglomeration of letters, Michael?”
These are the most common structures for a Chorus in musical theatre.
In theatre, we generally refer to this as a “32-bar Chorus” - meaning that there are approximately 32 measure over which the music of the Chorus is written.
And we break those 32 bars down into 4 distinct 8-measure sections - either structured as AABA or ABAC.
Let’s look at AABA, since it’s the most commonly used and it fits with our example of “If I Loved You.”
The A section is the 8-measure section that contains the Hook and helps further the meaning of what the song is trying to say.
The first A section of “If I Loved You” is:
If I loved you, (HOOK)
Time and again I would try to say
All I'd want you to know.
So now we’re talking about some more specific information of what would happen if she did love Billy. It’s not just the hook, there’s more to it. But that’s not quite enough information yet, so we have to expound upon the idea more with another A section:
If I loved you,
Words wouldn't come in an easy way
Round in circles I'd go!
Okay, now we’re learning more. And the music is almost identical to the first A section, even though we have different lyrics now.
Then we get to the B section, which takes the song in a slightly different direction. B sections do not contain the hook and they usually represent some type of opposite idea to the A sections in order to give more depth and contrast.
Longin' to tell you,
But afraid and shy,
I'd let my golden chances pass me by!
The A sections so far have been about how Julie would feel if she were in love, but the B section talks about how that would affect her actions. Along the same lines as the A sections, but a slight change to the main idea.
Then we finish with a final A section:
Soon you'd leave me,
Off you would go in the mist of day,
Never, never to know how I loved you
If I loved you.
Now we talk about the consequences of the A and B sections to bring the entire Chorus to a conclusion of some kind. The music is similar to those first two A sections, but it changes slightly, extends a little past 8 measures, and reaches a melodic climax. And if you notice, the Hook is still there, but it got moved to the end of the section to help provide that sense of conclusion.
And that would be the structure of a musical theatre Chorus. 32ish bars, AABA.
ABAC is a similar structure that does slightly different work, but I won’t go into those specifics today. Today I simply wanted to show that there is a difference in the terminology usage of Verse and Chorus between pop music and theatre music.
Why is this important?
Well, perhaps to most people it is not. But for creatives in the theatre industry, knowing this terminology and its differences can not only help you be confident in what you’re talking about, but these structures can help you decipher the intentions of the writers. And with that, there are clues to character development and plot devices that are useful in putting on a show.
Perhaps we will discuss more about song structure in the future, but I hope you enjoyed today’s beginner crash course!