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Using Contrast Between Verse and Chorus, as Done by R.E.M.
By Anthony Ceseri - 09/18/2012 - 03:50 AM EDT

Remember that scene in Tommy Boy where Chris Farley and David Spade are singing along to “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by REM? Then they hit a point in the lyrics where they just start rambling because they don’t know the rest of the words and they can’t keep up with the lines?
That makes me laugh every time. Especially since I’ve done that myself plenty of times. The funny thing about that song is we’re always impressed by our one friend who can actually sing the whole verse… without looking at the lyrics.
So what’s happening there? Why are we in such amazement when our one friend can actually pull this song off? Aren’t songs meant to be singable?
First let’s take a listen. At least to the first verse and chorus. You can even try to sing along (if you dare).


The first thing you probably notice about this song is the fast pace, and craziness of the verses. That’s this song’s “thing.” That’s who it is. It’s a big ball of chaos. Well, in its verses, anyway. The chorus (starting at “It’s the End of the World…”) is slow, and drawn out. At least compared to the verses.
Contrast between sections is the way we distinguish one section from another. One (of the many) ways to achieve such contrast is to change the rhythm and length of our phrases between sections. This is the main strategy this song uses to achieve contrast between its verses and chorus. The verses are super quick and choppy, while the chorus is comparatively drawn out. It’s an effectively strategy.

Chaos vs. Clarity

If the lyrics in the verses actually hold any meaning, they seem to be about chaos. And if there is no actual meaning, then by definition that still makes them chaotic.  So the verses are really about chaos, which of course ties back to the whole “End of the World” idea.
When the chorus hits, it simply proclaims “It’s the end of the world as we know it” three times as a summation of what’s happening in the verses. But the coolest part happens on the fourth line of the chorus, in the line “and I feel fine.” After a crazy, fast paced verse, which gets summed up by the first three lines of the chorus, the phrase “I feel fine” is the most drawn out, with the longest notes of anything we’ve heard so far. What we hear is “and I feel fine,” while the mood of the music is the most relaxed compared to everything else we’ve heard in this song. It makes us feel fine.
It’s a strategic use of lyrics married to their meaning. Not only do the verses imply chaos through their words, but they also do so with how the mood of the music makes us feel. In a contrasting way, the chorus slows down and feels more subdued, which is perfectly fitting by the time “I feel fine” kicks in on the last line. It makes us feel fine, when we’re otherwise surrounded by all this chaos.

Try it Out

Take a lesson from REM and continue to contrast the feel of your verses and choruses. You’ve got a new way to try that out, by changing rhythms and lengths of your phrases between sections, like what’s done in “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (And I Feel Fine).” Then to really drive your lyrical ideas home, see if you can get them to tie into the moods you create in the music of your verses and choruses. Your songs will always have the most impact when you can pull this off. You’ll know if it feels right.

To learn more songwriting techniques, you can download my free EBook here:

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