Song chorus progression

One of the things I like about some country songs is the way the choruses work.

For example, there seems to be a subgenre of country that starts with a verse about the narrator's or someone else's childhood, and then there's a chorus.

And then the second verse is about the protagonist's young adulthood, and then we get the same chorus but with a few words modified to fit the changed circumstances.

And then the third and final verse is about how things are now, and the third and final chorus is again essentially the same chorus, but altered slightly, and often from a different point of view or with a different perspective.

So what's essentially the same chorus gains new meanings, or is shown in different lights, by appearing in different contexts.

This also happens in a fair number of folksongs, and even some pop songs. I think songs that tell stories often have this structure, regardless of genre. But I think I see it most often in country songs.

Here's an example: Chuck Wicks's "Stealing Cinderella." In the first chorus, the protagonist is describing looking at childhood pictures of the woman he wants to marry; in the second chorus (same words), the protagonist realizes that in the woman's father's eyes "she would always be" that little girl; and in the third chorus, the protagonist learns to see her that way as well. (Which isn't as creepy in the song as my description makes it sound.)

Another more or less example: Blake Shelton's "Austin" (which is totally sappy but I really like it anyway). As is often true in this structure, there isn't much progression (though there are changes in the words) from the first chorus to the second. In this example, the third chorus is a bigger change than usual for this structure, but it's in the same ballpark as what I'm talking about.

It seems to me that there are a couple of country subgenres in which this structure appears particularly often: the "advice my father gave me" song (first chorus is receiving the advice as a kid; second chorus is about, say, understanding the advice as a young man; third chorus is protag giving his son the same advice) and the "guy whose daughter is getting married" song (first two choruses are about the girl when she was, say, a little kid and a teenager; third is at her wedding, with father saying she'll always be that little girl to him).

(It occurs to me that my exposure to country music is about like my exposure to romance novels: even though that exposure is shallow and narrow, I've had just enough to make me think I know something about the genre.)

A less clear-cut example from the folk world: my favorite Lui Collins song, "Wildflower Song." (Part of what I love about it is the tune and her performance, but I'm just talking about lyrics in this entry.) In the first two verses, she says she's avoiding falling in love, and the first two choruses ask why she's having the reactions she's having ("Then why did I..."); the third verse accepts how she's feeling, and the third chorus starts with "And so I..." And then the last chorus repeats, with a past-tense segment shifted to present tense.

All of those make me realize that in most cases, the chorus doesn't change much at all; what changes is the context for the chorus, supplied by the verses.

Anyway, I started wondering the other night whether it would be possible to structure a story the same way. I think it might, but it would be tough--repeating things in a story is a lot harder to pull off than repeating things in a song or poem. And a song generally doesn't give the audience time to figure out ahead of time what the end of the progression is going to be--and it's generally not so plot-oriented that it matters if you guess the resolution ahead of time anyway.

The closest I can think of is stories that start with a statement or quotation or italicized bit, and then give a bunch of context, and then repeat the starting line near the end, where the new context sheds new light on it. Fredric Brown's "Knock" is a classic example. Spinrad's "Deathwatch" does something similar. But none of those are quite what I'm thinking of. And I'm not sure whether what I'm thinking of would work as a story.

Still, I'm intrigued by the idea.

8 Responses to “Song chorus progression”

  1. jacob

    Interesting thought. I can think of examples in movies/TV and in dance. In TV I’m thinking of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I saw recently, from Season 2, in which a ghost keeps taking over the bodies of couples and making them play out the death scene with the woman he loved. Finally Buffy and Angel are forced to play the scene — and it takes on completely different meaning (and ends in a new and extremely satisfying way).

    Harder to do on the page. Seems to me I’ve read stories (can’t think of an example) where we keep flashing back to an important memory that plays through, but it gets cut off at the crucial moment, or maybe we go a little further each time. Then finally we get to see the whole thing. I’ve seen that one in movies as well.

    Joe Haldeman has a neat short story involving some kind of dream therapy, where the character keeps falling into the same basic story in each dream — and then it extends into real life. I can dig up the title if you like.

  2. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Heh. It’s funny you post this now — I just taught the chapter from LeGuin last night, and what you’re talking about is a version of ‘structural repetition’. The example I came up with off the top of my head is from the Harry Potter books — if you consider the openings of each book (he’s stuck at the Dursley’s, can’t do magic, does some magic, it goes somewhat wrong, he finally goes off to Hogwarts, whew!), they repeat, which is in itself often funny and definitely satisfying — but they change each time too, as Harry grows up, and the books and his problems get more adult and serious.

  3. Josh

    I remember running into this in a Lorrie Morgan song I Guess You Had To Be There several years ago on the radio, and thinking it was really nifty. (That page leaves out the second iteration of the chorus; YouTube has a video.

    Weird Al also often varies the chorus of his parodies, although more for humor value than storytellingness I suppose.

  4. Vardibidian

    Isn’t the canonical example of this Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle?

    Oddly enough, what annoys me about country music (to the limited extent that I’ve listened to any) is what I call the verse-to-chorus ratio problem. Instead of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-verse-chorus, you get chorus-verse-chorus-instrumental verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus. This sometimes happens in pop songs too, of course, and it annoys me there as well, but somehow whenever I am compelled to listen to country, it seems to happen in nearly every song. Obviously, there are lots of people who prefer a low verse-to-chorus ration, but there it is.

    I’ll also attempt to say the word villanelle before anybody else does. Did I make it?


  5. Matthew

    Actually, the true identifying characteristic of a modern country music song is modulation. That is, towards the end of the song, after singing the chorus, the chorus is sung yet again, only a full step higher in key. To amp up the emotional effect, you see. 😉

  6. Wayman

    It’s still not quite what you’re describing, but Raymond Queneau’s _Exercises in Style_ is another approach at this idea in fiction.

  7. benrosenbaum

    I don’t think you want it to be a poem; you want it to be a piece of dialogue, or visual image, which is repeated but takes on a different meaning in its new context. You would have to work hard, in fiction, to avoid this ending up precious; probably it would have to be subtle, just at or below the level of conscious perception…

  8. Vardibidian

    It occurs to me that I haven’t read much of Samuel Beckett’s prose; he does it in his plays, of course.

    Let’s go.
    We can’t.
    Why not?
    We’re waiting for Godot

    Tom Stoppard as well, although for some reason I particularly remember it in Mr. Stoppard’s translation of Largo Desolato, by Vaclav Havel.



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