What You Can Learn About Improv from “Livin’ on a Prayer”
Rob Schiffmann

Ever sing a chorus for an improvised song and it just doesn’t hit as hard as you were hoping it would? No? You haven’t? Well for those of us that have had that pleasure maybe you feel you did everything right. You were repetitive. You had energy. You even put your chorus melody in a higher range than your verse melody and yet still, this chorus just refuses to soar as high as you hoped it would. Why?!?! Why, oh Improv Gods, do you forsake us so in these, our most musically vulnerable hours?

The Improv Gods answer to this question should and will be “because you, oh mere mortal, did not set your chorus up for success.” They will then strike you down or set you aflame or turn you into a spider.

And guess what?! You deserve it. Because you did not EARN YOUR CHORUS!

What It Means and How to Earn Your Chorus

Every piece of music, from a pop tune to a concerto to a nursery rhyme, has an energy map. If that piece of music is successful in evoking it’s intended emotional response, it is largely due to the structural integrity of that energy map. Take, for example, Bon Jovi’s classic song, “Livin’ on a Prayer”. We start with a drone that feels anticipatory. Then we bring in the crazy “oh-wah, oh’wah” synth vocals, which takes our anticipation up a notch. We then learn of Johnny and his former gainful employment on the docks. As a new synth begins pulsing 8th notes in the background. we learn of Gina who, lucky for Johnny, is still employed at ‘the diner’. Gina and Johnny share both a strong and resilient love as well as a melody that while full, does leave plenty of space. When it comes time to learn that “we’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got”, the melody, in a move of intentional contrast to the verse, fills out quite a bit, leaving very little space. As well, we add a high synth to make sure there is no doubt that we are deeply ensconced in the 1980s. All of this tells us on a musical-emotional level that a) because of that intentional melodic contrast between the verse and the pre-chorus, we are most definitely not in Kansas / the verse anymore and b) because of the high synth (and a parallel vocal harmony, for all you harmony nerds), something is coming and all of our previous anticipation is about to be paid off. And it is. We arrive at our chorus and learn that we are “half way there” and “whoa-oa”, we are, in fact, “Livin’ on a Prayer”.

Diving In to a Successful Song Structure

Bon’s song (I like calling him ‘Bon’) is a great example of how music is often successfully structured. We start in a basic and simple verse that sets a tone. We then move to a pre-chorus whose only function is to drive the energy up so that we may then leap to our chorus. It is similar to a diver on a diving board (because it’s always fun when artists attempt to use sports metaphors). As the diver’s ‘verse’ begins, we watch them prepare their body and create the energy necessary for what is to come. They are at statis but that stasis is imbued with a focused energy. As they move into their ‘pre-chorus’, we watch them begin their walk/run to the edge of the board and everything tells us that the big moment is coming. They then hit their ‘chorus’ as they leap, and we leap with them, into the air. They pull a double axel (no idea what that is) and then land, miraculously unharmed, in a body of water that seems to be the size of a Dixie cup full of water.  Without their pre-chorus, they would prepare their body and then simply fall into that water. Imagine watching that. It would be boring and anti-climactic (not to mention dangerous). The leap is only as exciting as the preparation for that leap allows it to be.

Fear Not, Ye Song Improv Mortal!

 So fear not. The Improv Gods are not a vindictive kind. They will give you another chance. Use your pre-chrous to get yourself to the edge and then leap into the chorus. You will have earned the simplicity and the power that is necessary to make your chorus soar. And should you doubt yourself along the way, remember: ‘we’re HALF way there”. “Take my hand and we’ll make it, I swear”. Yeah, we’ll get there ”Dead or Alive”.  See what I did there?
You got this.