by Eli Zeger
We look into a songwriting phenomenon that is underutilized: the post-chorus.
Each age of the Hot 100 is defined by how specific styles and songwriting techniques have come to be or evolved with each new era. Trap (like Desiigner and Future) and EDM (like The Chainsmokers and Jack U), for example, are two of the styles paramount to 2016 in pop music. Uniting these styles, plausibly, is that their respective hits deliver powerful hooks. (Other minute, super-technical sonic qualities unite trap and EDM, but dissecting them would warrant a whole other conversation.)
A single cathartic, powerful hook can make a song unforgettable. However, why stop at one? The chorus is an integral, auspicious constituent of the pop song structure, representing the hook. There’s another constituent that can render a song even more auspicious, yet it’s criminally undermined and endangered in today’s pop music. Songwriters call this the post-chorus.
The pre-chorus is a conduit between the verse and chorus, functioning as a buildup that reels you in. After the chorus typically comes a new verse, or possibly a reintro, but the downside to following this well-worn path is that the cathartic potential of the chorus becomes limited. Especially in pop music, it makes so much sense to keep the listener magnetized with as much soaring melody and energy; the post-chorus acts as an immediate second round of this. The outcome of a pre-chorus’s buildup would feel amply more rewarding, knowing that not one but two separate awesome choruses await.
Fine examples of the post-chorus in action can be hand-picked from each decade, like in Thin Lizzy’s anthem “The Boys Are Back In Town,” from their 1976 rock opera and magnum opusJailbreak. In this instance there isn’t a pre-chorus, just a quick transition from the verse into the chorus, which is a call-and-response chant of the song-title accompanied by fuzzed-out, ringing guitar chords. Immediately after the third song-title chant in each chorus enters one of the gnarliest guitar duels of classic rock: In pristine synchronicity, players Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson ditch playing their chords from the choruses to, instead, harmonize on a swift, blazing riff for their post-chorus.
Along with “The Boys Are Back In Town,” another notable employment of an instrumental post-chorus is in new wave outfit Haircut One Hundred’s “Love Plus One,” from 1982; it was a minor hit here but a Top 5 hit in their native UK. The pre-chorus is brief (“Where does it go from here? / Is it down to the lake I fear?”), as is the chorus (“La la love plus one... When I call love”). The first post-chorus, an arrangement of blissful, soaring horn harmonies, is also short. Following the second chorus, which is doubled, however, comes a tripled post-chorus that leads to the end. In that tripled post-chorus, the horns introduce brand new soaring melodies in each added round -- so in all, “Love Plus One” showcasesthreevariations of post-choruses.
From 1993 we get a fine example of a vocal post-chorus. While those of “The Boys Are Back In Town” and “Love Plus One” are built on enticing instrumental melody, the post-chorus of the Roxbury Guys favorite “What Is Love” is hallmarked by the brief vocalization that’s tacked onto the end of the chorus, when you’d otherwise expect that passage to go to the reintro. “What is love? / Baby don’t hurt me, no more,” sings vocalist Haddaway, whose vocal range in the chorus is sparse. After the chorus that follows the first verse, instead of a reintro, there’s a new round of melody, in which a female vocalist belts a glorious, wordless call. It’s a brief yet epic post-chorus that simultaneously perpetuates the energy of the preceding passage and spotlights an escalated vocal range.
It seems pretty valid to argue that recent EDM pop hits actually have post-choruses, since they feature back-to-back hooks. This is true, except the latter hook in each of the hits doesn’t perpetuate the energy of the preceding hook -- otherwise, if there were perpetuation, the latter hook would technically qualify as a post-chorus. Songs like “Where Are U Now” by Jack U and “Don’t Let Me Down” by The Chainsmokers manifest the main vocal hooks in the pre-choruses, as they buildup; and the choruses are “drops” that expound instrumental hooks at the highest level of energy. It’s the kind of musical trajectory that’s perfect for rave settings: Anticipation rises as the audience screams along to the pre-chorus hook, then they go into a corporal frenzy when the instrumental melody drops in at full, cathartic force.
Where we do hear an actual, and fantastically executed, post-chorus is in Justin Timberlake’s recent smash “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” the musical theme for the upcoming animated movieTrolls, in which Timberlake has a voice-acting role. Its pre-chorus does a few jazzy chords, starting quiet then bubbling up with energy, until it pops right into the gallivanting, hard-funking chorus, where Timberlake punctuates each lyric with the phrase, “Dance, dance, dance.” Like that of “What Is Love,” the chorus of “Can’t Stop The Feeling” has a sparse vocal range, but Timberlake soars to a glorious falsetto for his post-chorus, which is a proclamation: “I can’t stop the feeling!” Escalating to a higher range isn’t the sole maneuver that distinguishes a vocal post-chorus; in the cases of Timberlake and Haddaway’s tracks, however, it guarantees incredible catchiness.
Writing a sweet, infectious chorus is an arduous task as is; writing two requires the prowess of an extremely sophisticated songwriter. While the bombast of a Yngwie Malmsteen solo is blindingly intricate, a great post-chorus is the result of subtle intricacy, in that writing one takes immeasurable refinement and tweaking, yet the finished product sounds utterly concise and magnetizing. Scant search results online reflect the infrequency of its usage; when the post-chorus is unsheathed, though, whether it be as Timberlake’s falsetto or Thin Lizzy’s blazing six-strings, it’s one of pop’s mightiest forms of weaponry.