By Charlotte Yates
A common stumbling block for songwriters is how to handle the second verse. After all, many songs only have two verses structurally, and the second verse often winds up being in that awkward “energy drop” position after your fabulously catchy chorus. This can lead to a loss of attention from the audience, so it pays to prepare for that.
If I ask songwriting students what the function of a verse is, they’ll quite happily tell me it’s where the song’s story unfolds, but if I ask them to distinguish between the purpose of the first verse and that of the second, they’ll say that the first verse sets the scene, but struggle to define what a second verse does. They’ll often struggle to find flow with their lyrics at this point too winding up with a big fat, “Now what?”
Here are three distinct ways to think about what’s happening at the second verse in the context of the song as a whole, plus a few strategies to keep your momentum going and your audience tuned into verse two.
1. Change the Lyrics
Firstly, by the time we’re at the second verse, we’ve probably already heard an intro, verse one, the pre-chorus/chorus, and maybe even the intro again. We’re heading towards the nebulous middle of the song. At verse two, the music repeats, but generally, it’s the lyrics that change. Hopefully, you, the songwriter, will have given us some specific details on who/where/when in verse one, and then moved us into the more metaphorical point or message of your song in the chorus, well-supported by hooks with a crystal clear title.
The second verse gives us the first chance in the song to shed a new light on the chorus, allowing us to hear it and see it in a different way. Second verses are often broader in perspective, often comfortable with more internal, rather than the strongly externally focused lyrics of verse one. Check out the second verse of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” compared with the first.
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything.
What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know goes away
In the end
And you could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt.
I wear this crown of thorns
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here.
The second verse has become metaphorical with a “crown of thorns” and “liar’s chair.” The lyrics reveal “broken thoughts” and “feelings disappear.” Compared this with the more direct first verse which is way more literal, “I hurt myself today / the needle tears a hole.”
2. Introduce a New Person, Place, or Time
Secondly, verse two can make something happen next.
How? By introducing a new character (like the “radical priest” in Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By the School Yard”), changing the setting (like to “Boogie Wonderland” in Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”), amping up the action (“Delilah” is murdered in verse two of Tom Jones’ 1968 song), or altering temporality — in other words, messing with time. Verse two may push us back into the past, or like in Lukas Graham’s song “7 Years,” it couples with the second version of the chorus to push us further into the future.
Once I was seven years old my momma told me
Go make yourself some friends or you’ll be lonely
Once I was seven years old.
It was a big big world, but we thought we were bigger
Pushing each other to the limits, we were learning quicker
By 11 smoking herb and drinking burning liquor
Never rich so we were out to make that steady figure.
Once I was 11 years old my daddy told me
Go get yourself a wife or you’ll be lonely
Once I was 11 years old.
I always had that dream like my daddy before me
So I started writing songs, I started writing stories
Something about that glory just always seemed to bore me
‘Cause only those I really love will ever really know me.
3. Or, Throw Structure Completely Out the Window
If that’s what we need to try and do conceptually, the “how” can also use several strategies in conjunction with the “what” (you’re attempting to say) to actively differentiate your second verse. Now, we’re really cooking!
You can work with a higher (or lower) lyric density — change (up or down) the number of total words you use in verse two. By the way, the leading exponent of high-lyric density is Eminem, using, on average, about 1,000 words per song and over 8,100 unique words in his lyrical vocabulary, ahead even of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
Or halve the length of verse two entirely. Like Sia does in “Chandelier.”
Party girls don’t get hurt
Can’t feel anything, when will I learn
I push it down, push it down.
I’m the one “for a good time call”
Phone’s blowin’ up, they’re ringin’ my doorbell
I feel the love, feel the love.
Sun is up, I’m a mess
Gotta get out now, gotta run from this
Here comes the shame, here comes the shame.
Or unbalance the second verse ever so slightly — for example, sticking a half bar in or taking a line out, like Reba McEntire did in “Turn on the Radio.”
No-good, two-timin’, lies comin’ outta your mouth
Cheatin’, mistreatin’ games that you play brought you down
Broke my heart, tore it apart, look who’s got the last laugh now
Don’t you come crawlin’ back begging please on your knees
Baby if you’re missin’ me.
Well, you can hear me on the radio
You wanna turn me on, turn on your stereo
You can sing along, while they’re playin’ my song
How you done me wrong
Baby crank it up!
Until you blow the speakers out your Chevy truck
So listen Romeo, when you’re feelin’ kinda lonely
Let me tell you where to go
Turn on the radio!
Try to call, Twitter me, text until your fingers bleed
Oh! The DJ’s the only way you’re ever gonna hear from me
If you’re reminiscing, and you’re missin’ me this much
And you really wanna stay in touch.
Or beef up the lyric meter and rhythm — for example from one-syllable to two-syllable words. Here’s how Fiona Apple pumped up the second verse (and pre-chorus) of her song, “Criminal.”
I’ve been a bad, bad girl
I’ve been careless with a delicate man
And it’s a sad, sad world
When a girl will break a boy just because she can
Don’t you tell me to deny it
I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins
I’ve come to you ’cause I need guidance to be true
And I just don’t know where I can begin
What I need is a good defense
‘Cause I’m feeling like a criminal
And I need to be redeemed
To the one I’ve sinned against
Because he’s all I ever knew of love
Heaven help me for the way I am
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand
But I keep living this day like the next will never come
Oh help me but don’t tell me to deny it
I’ve got to cleanse myself of all these lies ’till I’m good enough for him
I’ve got a lot to lose and I’m bettin’ high so I’m begging you
Before it ends just tell me where to begin
These lyric changes will force your song’s energy and effect towards small but very significant variations, that can also recapture the listener’s ear and make your second verse not same as the first.
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Charlotte Yates is a New Zealand singer-songwriter and songwriting coach. She’s just released her seventh album Then the Stars Start Singing and is tutoring at the Songwriters Retreat in February 2018.