A sarcastic urban dictionary entry defines the chorus as “The part of a song you actually remember,” and there’s more to that joke than just the humor value. In most popular music, the chorus can easily be identified because it is uses the same lyrics each time we hear it, and it frequently uses the title of the song. Most definitions of chorus mention the repetition of text or appearance of the song title; for example, in his massive two-volume study of the Beatles’ music, Walter Everett says that “The chorus, which gets its name from a usual thickening of texture from the addition of backing vocals, is always a discrete section that nearly always prolongs the tonic and carries an unvaried poetic text” (Everett 1999, p. 19). The repetition of lyrics in the chorus sets off that section from the verse, which usually has different lyrics each time it is heard. “the verse is to be understood as a unit that prolongs the tonic….The musical structure of the verse nearly always recurs at least once with a different set of lyrics” (Everett 1999, p. 15). Because we hear the chorus sung the same way over and over, it becomes the most memorable part of the song
But in Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow,” this definition doesn’t work. There is a part of the song with repeating text: the stanza that begins at 0:21 is repeated almost exactly at 3:55. But it’s not that memorable or something you’d normally sing along with, and the same music occurs at 1:28 with different lyrics. That would mean that this song has a chorus and a single verse, followed by a long bridge, then a second chorus, which would be a really odd song form. It makes a lot more sense to view each of the sections with lyrics (which all have the same music) as verses, with the first and last verse having the same lyrics. Then does this song even have a chorus?
Another approach to defining verse and chorus is by talking about the functions they each take in the larger song form. The verse is sometimes described as telling a story, while the chorus carries the “main message” of the song, whether it’s a confession of love, a sorrowful refrain, or an outburst of “We’re not gonna take it anymore!” The verse is often described as leading up to the chorus’s message. This provides an alternate definition of the chorus and verse in relation to each other, instead of based on whether the lyrics repeat.1 John Covach, for example, says that “In a verse-chorus song […] the focus of the song is squarely on the chorus. […] the verse serves primarily to prepare the return of the chorus” (Covach 2004, p. 71). Following this definition, we can identify the chorus of a rock or metal song by looking for the loudest, most memorable recurring part of the song, whether it has repeating lyrics or not.2
These kinds of definitions work a lot better for Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow.” The verses in this song start at 0:21, 1:28 and 3:55, and they are relatively quiet, with a soft touch on the drums and clean-tone folk-style picking patterns in the guitars. Each time the verse happens, it is followed by a the same loud, distorted riff (you can hear it starting at 0:59, 2:06, and 4:33). There is no doubt that this riff is catchier than the verses, and it is definitely much louder. And there’s definitely a sense that the verses lead up to this riff. So this loud riff matches many of the traits of the chorus, even though it doesn’t have lyrics.
The most significant point that I could make next is that this form construction enshrines this chorus riff as the most important part of the song. In many rock/pop songs, the vocals in the chorus are the main part of the song you’d remember, and what you’d sing along to if it came on the radio. People often talk about riffs being the main stuff that metal music is made of. Making a chorus that consists of only riffs, and no words, uses the affordances of the normal verse/chorus construction to make it clear that the RIFFS carry the main weight of the song’s message, not the lyrics. Another famous metal song that does this is Metallica’s “Fade to Black,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a few other metal songs that have riffs-only choruses with no lyrics. Let me know in the comments if you can think of one!
One loose end that could be confusing is the bridge. Covach’s definition describes the chorus as the main part of the song, and I think there could be an argument that what I’m calling the bridge of “Remember Tomorrow” is more important than the part I’m calling the chorus. This bridge section, which starts at 2:23, picks up the tempo and has busier, louder drums. Plus, it has the guitar solo, which is always an important moment in any metal song. But the riff I’ve labelled as the chorus is much heavier than anything in the bridge, and it is more unique and has more personality than the riffs in the bridge. The riff I’ve labelled as the chorus is the part that I remember the most clearly, and it’s the part of the song I’m most likely to catch myself humming in the late afternoon when I’m not focusing on my work as well. It’s also the material the song ends with, and as we know from pop psychology, it’s the first and last parts of any event that we are most likely to remember clearly.
"Remember Tomorrow" form/timing chart
0:00 quiet intro
0:21 Verse 1 (quiet clean tone guitar)
0:59 Chorus (distorted riff, but no vocals)
1:28 Verse 2
2:23 Bridge faster tempo
2:38 Guitar Solo (still part of the Bridge)
3:07 Guitar Solo 2
3:36 (transitioning back to the Verse)
3:55 Verse 3
Covach, John. 2004. “Form in Rock Music: A Primer.” Engaging Music: Essays in Musical Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 65-76.
de Clercq, Trevor. 2012. “Sections and Successions in Successful Songs: A Prototype Approach to Form in Rock Music.” PhD Dissertation. University of Rochester.
Doll, Christopher. 2011. “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form.” Music Theory Online 17.3.
Everett, Walter. 1999. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Trevor deClercq’s 2012 dissertation “Sections and Successions in Successful Songs: A Prototype Approach to Form in Rock Music” is the most thorough exploration of the idea that song sections can be defined in relation to one another, based on the function they take in the overall song form. [↩]
- For further reading on how some songs achieve these effects, I can recommend a great article by Christopher Doll, “Rockin’ Out: Expressive Modulation in Verse-Chorus Form” [↩]