Jane Shields from Worcester, England, asks how a lyricist with limited musical knowledge can estimate the number of verses and choruses needed for a three-minute pop song. Similarly, Peter Dalton from Canberra, Australia, asks how a lyricist can know how long a song will be. The classic pop formula is two or three verse/chorus pairs and perhaps a bridge. You’ll usually have four or six or eight lines for each verse, a chorus that’s either half as long or the same length as the verse, and a bridge of about the same length as the verse. Of course, this can vary dramatically depending on the tempo of the song and myriad other factors, but most of my songs that follow that recipe come in between two and four minutes. One way to check is to find another artist’s tune that has roughly the same beat you envision for your composition. Try singing or chanting your lyrics over the structure. If it fits into, say, Honky Tonk Woman or Respect or Proud Mary, it’ll probably come in at about three minutes.
Sharon Messa from Glasgow asks whether it’s OK to change the words in a pre-chorus. The flippant answer would be, “Of course. You can do what you want. It’s your song!” But more seriously, there’s a reason song structures have developed the way they have, and repetition of the chorus (and I tend to consider the pre-chorus to be part of the chorus) helps make a song catchy and memorable. That said, songwriters do sometimes change parts of the chorus.
In Alternative Facts, I tweak both the pre-chorus and the chorus. The first pre-chorus begins with the lines, “Here’s alternative fact Number One/What we had is really done.” Then the second and third pre-choruses (logically enough) become alternative fact Number Two and Number Three, with corresponding rhymes. The chorus itself also shifts, with the first instance starting “An alternate truth you know it ain’t right/Light is black and dark is white/We ain’t broken only cracked/To say we’re through is alternative fact.” In the next instance, the third line becomes “We’re unglued but still intact,” and the final time it’s “We should add but you subtract.” Of course, part of the conceit of the song is the litany of alternative facts one, two, and three, so the pre-chorus had to change (and in that respect it might be considered part of the verse). For the chorus itself, I could have used just one of the variations I chose, but I think there’s enough memorable repetition to allow for changing out the third line, which to my ear makes the song more interesting.
Since I received your question, I’ve been looking around for hit songs that change out part of the chorus, and it’s not easy to find them. (I’d welcome any other examples readers manage to unearth.) The Beatles make small tweaks to Day Tripper, In My Life, I Feel Fine, and several others. The Rolling Stones do it in Wild Horses and Dead Flowers, as does Springsteen in Brilliant Disguise. In Life During Wartime, Talking Heads switch out the third line of every instance of the chorus. Each one begins, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around” and ends “I ain’t got time for that now.” But the third line shifts from “No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,” to the deliciously evocative (for those who knew New York in the ‘80s) “This ain’t no Mudd Club, or C.B.G.B.,” and then to “I’d like to hold you, I’d love to kiss you.” Before the final instance, there are four lines that follow the chords and melody of the chorus but have entirely different lyrics—serving almost as a bridge, which the song otherwise lacks. In other words, it’s always good to be aware of the rules and it’s generally best to follow them. But when it makes sense to you, go ahead and change the pre-chorus or the chorus–because you can do what you want. It’s your song!
The Lyrics Doctor