How to Write a Power Ballad

Posted: October 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

I wrote the following for a lesson on song structure and functional harmony. What follows could apply to a range of styles of music. The principle of the structure applies to a lot of pop music (and rock music). And the relationships between chords will still have the same effect in other styles of music. One of the important relationships discussed here is the relationship between chord V and chord I and how this can provide tension and release. There is mention of ‘Reach’ by S Club 7, which follows the same structural and harmonic rules. I may write that one up soon.

Few styles of music can be as beautifully formulaic and powerfully predictable as a power ballad. But don’t think that I mock. Oh no, for the craft of writing power ballads requires skill and great understanding; and the resulting product invokes the deepest of emotions from the listener. Though you may have complete disregard for this graceful and elegant art form, when you are in love or broken hearted, the strains of a good power ballad in a private moment will surely send you to tears and feed you in your hunger.

So, how do the greats write their power ballads then?

If it were that simple, we’d all be doing it wouldn’t we? Well, the answer is probably, ‘no’, as most people never have any desire to write power ballads but, nonetheless, it is not simple but it is a craft that can be learned by those with a good understanding of chords and melody; and it can be performed by musicians with a good sense of discipline along with a vocalist with a powerful voice and a good range. The power ballad is the vocalist’s tour de force. It is their opportunity to show the full gamut of what they do – the quiet intimate moments, the gut wrenching emotion, the powerful sustained notes and the big push at the top of their range. (Also, it can make them look really cool on stage as they strike lots of different poses.)

Remember, not every power ballad follows exactly the formulas that I’m about to mention…but they should.


The structure is very simple. Remember listening to ‘Reach’ by S Club 7? The structural formula is the same: you start with your intro, then a verse, a bridge (or pre-chorus), a chorus, verse, bridge, chorus again; then we have the middle 8 (which can include a solo or a breakdown) and a key change into the final choruses.

This is how it works:


The intro could work in one of two ways normally. It should be kept fairly short and should either consist of half a chorus with no vocals but high impact, or a bar or two on the first chord played by one instrument -simple as that.


OK. The purpose of a verse in a song is to tell the story. This is the most narrative part of the song both lyrically, melodically and harmonically. It’s also the most intimate part of the song, so the singer should hold back and sing in a comfortable part of his or her range. When Jon Bon Jovi sings, ‘Romeo is bleeding, but you can’t see his blood…’ he’s almost singing to you. His range is similar to his speaking range, the level is low and the pitch rocks up and down like a boat on a gentle stream. Or something.

Despite the gut-wrenching sadness of many power ballads, many are in major keys. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll assume the key of our mythical power ballad is G, just because it’s a convenient key to work in, especially on guitar or piano. The first chord of our verse is very important and can only really be one of two chords – either it should be chord I (G) or its relative minor, chord vi (Em). ‘Rule the World’ by Take That goes with the minor first chord, as does ‘Love Song’ by Tesla. This can establish the melancholic feel of the verse. Many other songs will start with chord I. Your second chord is equally important. Again, this is usually one of two chords and it is usually a minor chord. If you start on your chord I, you may then move to the relative minor (something you can’t do if you started on the relative minor) or you may move to chord iii (Bm). If you started on the Em, then a move to Bm is the best bet – both ‘Rule the World’ and ‘Love Song’ make this move. ‘Wild Horses’ by the Rolling Stones and ‘Ziggy Stardust’ by David Bowie both move from chord I to chord iii. The number of songs that go from chord I to chord vi (the relative minor) is almost infinite. Check out anything by Diane Warren, ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘Stand by Me’ by Ben E. King. The rest of the verse chords are up to you.

Pre Chorus

The pre-chorus of your song should be fairly short, usually about four or five bars (and using five bars may be significant). It should provide tension and drama in the build up to the chorus. There needs to be a sense of movement in the progression from the verse to the chorus so we shouldn’t start our pre-chorus on chord I. The best choices for your first chord are chord IV (C) or chord ii (Am), which is the relative minor of chord IV. The other important chord in our pre-chorus is the final chord. There really should be no argument about this. THE PRE-CHORUS SHOULD END ON CHORD V (D). This is to provide the ultimate tension as chord V wants to resolve back to chord I. We can increase the tension by extending the duration of this chord for an extra bar (hence the 5 bar pre-chorus).  The melody should start to move upwards, like the tightening of a string, as the tension increases and increases; the heart beats faster, the sweat pours, you know it’s coming and you are about to burst, the blood’s pumping, you’re shaking…’I’ve got you and you’ve got me so…’


The release, the ultimate impact and drama. The start of the chorus is the ultimate peak of your song. Your melody should be near the top of the range at the beginning of the chorus – maybe not the first note but somewhere near – and the first chord of the chorus should be your chord I so that you have the perfect cadence from the end of the pre-chorus into the chorus. The other alternative is to start your chorus on chord vi (the relative minor) and this will give you the dramatic effect of one of those big 1980s power ballads like ‘Alone’ by Heart. You can keep the chord progression for the chorus fairly simple, three or four chords and keep the progression strong with a good sense of resolution. Make your melody memorable. This is the part that people need to be singing long after the song has finished. It doesn’t need to be too wordy.

In terms of your dynamics, there should be a definite build from the verse to the pre-chorus to the chorus. This can be achieved in terms of the instrumentation as well as how the instruments are played. The drummer can move from a side stick in the verse to the snare in the pre-chorus to big cymbal crashes in the chorus, or move from a half time feel in the verse to add pace. Missing out the kick on beat three, or a snare drum can also add impact. The bass player should work closely with the drummer and the kick and bass should lock in. If you are recording this, try side chaining the gate to make the rhythm section sound tighter. Keep the instrumentation simple and sparse in the verse but build it up over the next sections.

The Middle 8

The purpose of the middle 8 is to add a twist to your tale. It is a fulcrum point, like in a story when a new event happens that alters the progress of the hero or some new piece of evidence is uncovered. This is usually based around the same tonal centre as the rest of the song but often a different mode. Try going to the bVII chord (F) or the bIII chord (Bb). This will add a sense of drama to your middle 8, a sense of movement and the feeling that we are saying something esle.

The Key Change

Or the Stand-Up-Off-Your-Stool Moment.

This is the moment of highest drama within the song. It usually occurs as you go into the final chorus and is a shift upwards so that the vocalist is stretching his or her range. The key change should therefore reflect the movement upwards by shifting up by a semitone or, more often, a tone. The most ham-fisted example of this is Shayne Ward’s ‘That’s My Goal’, which starts the first line of the chorus, then stops, then jumps into the new key. A more satisfactory method would be to finish your middle 8 on chord V of your new key so that the transition seems more natural. So, finish on an E chord, then you can play your final choruses in the new key of A.

The final chorus (es) should have confetti coming down from the ceiling, explosions, fists clenched, tears, bright lights, the kitchen sink. In fact, replace your snare drum with cannon fire. It can only be a good thing.

By the end you should be physically and emotionally drained.



If you want a simpler chord progression, you could use the three chord I – IV – V trick. Use chords I and IV as the mainstay of the verse and use chord V for dramatic impact, as in ‘Sugar Mice’ by Marillion. Or you could just use a simple chord progression like I – vi – IV – V or I – V – vi – IV and use the melody to demonstrate changes in mood or lifting of tension. Check out how ‘Bleeding Love’ by Leona Lewis or ‘With or Without You’ by U2 do this. Though the verse, pre-chorus and chorus all have the same chord progression, you can clearly hear the development between sections in something like ‘Bleeding Love’, as Leona Lewis starts singing the verse on the root note, the pre-chorus on the third and the chorus on the fifth, which gives us a sense of lift and drama with each new section.


Everybody Dance

I was going to write about disco. The main reason I was going to write about disco was because I love it. I’ve been teaching my disco lesson for about 12 years now, on and off. It’ slightly different every time but I’ve wanted to get across the important points about how the different parts work together. I’ve also been convinced that it’s going to be useful to someone someday because it’s bound to have a bit of a resurgence. And now it seems that may have finally happened. With Daft Punk getting to number 1, the BBC showing ‘The Joy of Disco’ and Nile Rodgers documentaries and Chic touring incessantly – not to mention the stellar success of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album.

But I decided not to write solely about disco and to make this a fairly general thing about dance music and what are the important factors that make it work. This applies to pretty much all contemporary forms of pop-based dance music from disco to house to reggae to rock bands like AC/DC (for more on them see my previous post on the ‘International Write and Record an Album in a Month, month’ page on Facebook). So here goes…


1 The pulse

In dance music, you must have a strong pulse. This is the heartbeat of the song and the thing that will get you nodding your head, snapping your fingers, stamping your feet or shaking your leg. When people talk about the beat, this is what they mean. The tempo of the pulse can help determine your reaction to the music. Let’s say a resting heartbeat is about 80 beats per minute, anything above that may excite you while you are resting. It will try and push your own heart rate up. If you are already dancing, your heart beat will be much faster so you will need to have a song that is going at a faster tempo to keep your adrenalin going. If you’re at a rave and you’ve just taken a load of dodgy jelly beans then you may need the tempo to go up to 130 bpm or over to satisfy your new puppy-like desire for bouncing around. However, if you’ve been smoking banana skins (or whatever it is that people do these days) and you’re lying back on your sofa with your feet up, eating chocolate and the only dance move you can manage is a barely perceptible nodding of the head, then a hip-hop track at 80 or 90 bpm may be enough.

The pulse will usually be provided by the kick drum, though there are variations on this. With house or disco and some reggae tracks, you may get a kick drum on each beat. The low thud, just like a heartbeat, helping you to keep time; relentless and consistent. With other styles, the kick will accent the first and third beats of the bar and the snare backbeat will fill in the gaps. Funk has a heavy accent on the down beat (beat one), whereas one-drop reggae will leave this beat free so that you almost fall into the rest of the bar and the kick drum will accent beat three.

Quite often, the bass part will support the pulse – just listen to ‘Good Times’ by Chic to hear how that infamous bassline by Bernard Edwards supports the pulse on those first three beats before playing the other fancy bits before doing the same thing in bar 3 of this 4 bar riff (John Deacon’s bassline for ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ works in a very similar way ). Cliff Williams from AC/DC will usually double the pulse by playing 8th notes in his bass parts (take ‘Down Payment Blues’ for example).


2 The backbeat

The backbeat is what happens on beats 2 and 4 of the bar. These beats are normally emphasised by the snare drum. (On visiting Manchester Music Base, former Yes and King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford described it as ‘the tyranny of the backbeat’.) The snare drum may be supported by handclaps, either real – as in disco – or electronic – as in house or hip hop (check out the handclaps in ‘Turn Me On’ by David Guetta ft Nicki Minaj ). Having a strong kick drum on beats one and three and a snare drum on 2 and 4 gives the piece a sense of a marching left-right-left-right rhythm. This is what gets you walking to the dance floor. Got a good strong pulse and backbeat? You’re halfway there. You’ve got the audience stomping and clapping already. All you need now is to fill in the gaps.


3 Off-beats

This is where the hi-hats come in. Often, anyway. Listen to Tony Thompson’s playing for Chic (or Sister Sledge or whoever), even if the hi-hat patterns are fairly intricate 16th patterns, he still accents off-beats, or there is the classic groove to ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba,  where the shakers do this job. You hear this all the time in house music, with a really strong four to the floor kick, snare and claps on the backbeat and hats on the off-beats.  You’ll notice none of the proper drummers try to do silly demisemiquaver hi-hat patterns. This is because they are not white boy music students trying to show off. The octave bass can often fill this role as well, such as Bernard Edwards’ bass in ‘Dance Dance Dance’, where you play the low octave on the beat and play the octave above on the off-beat.

In some types of music, other instruments are used to accent the off-beat, such as the guitar in ska. Bands like Mumford and Sons will do a similar thing by providing a strong pulse with a kick drum and making the guitar accent against that. Just listen to the way the guitar in ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii does exactly the same.


4 Syncopation

Syncopation is basically stuff that works against the pulse and the accents will land sometimes on the beat and sometimes off the beat. This could be a rhythmic chord part, such as a guitar (often in disco) or a piano (often in house music) or a synth; a percussion part; or even the lead vocal. Let’s take the ‘classic’ (and, by classic, I mean ‘not classic’) ‘She Makes Me Wanna’ by JLS . The main chorus vocal has a very distinct pulse of its own that conflicts with the main pulse of the song. Try tapping the pulse of the song with your right hand and the pulse of the vocal line with your left (or the other way round if you’re left-handed). You may find (if you do it properly) that for every 3 taps of your right hand, you will have tapped your left hand (the vocal hand) four times. This could be described as a four-over-three polyrhythm and it is extremely common in contemporary dance music, especially different types of house music.  The left hand and right hand only meet on ‘LONdon to jaMAIca, La to aFRICa…’ and thereby accent the wrong part of Africa, making it sound like a FREAK a. Quite often you will hear these syncopations taken from Latin American rhythmic patterns, such as the Cuban clave patterns or the Bossa Nova. The rhythm guitar part in ‘I’m Coming Out’ by Diana Ross plays the reverse (2:3) Son clave pattern to great effect. 


5 Other stuff

It helps if you have a good sing-a-long vocal with a strong hook. If people can sing or shout on the dance floor, they get more excitable and a sense of camaraderie and team spirit ensues. Like football fanaticism but with more rhythm and no opposing team. Lyrics about dancing, music and escape from the humdrum monotony of modern life are often a key element. Check out ‘Lost in Music’ by Sister Sledge .

It also helps to divide those parts up between different instruments. People seem to assume to play a funky bass line or a funky guitar part or drum pattern you have to play loads of notes to have a strong pulse and syncopation but if you have a full band you can keep each instrumental part pretty sparse, then the different instruments don’t sound like they’re racing against each other. Listen to how simple the bass line is on ‘Superstition’, for example. It basically plays the root note on each beat, emphasising the pulse; it doesn’t play the complicated riff that lots of people assume it plays. . Or listen to the simplicity of the guitar and drum parts in ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ by James Brown .

It’s always worth going back to ‘Good Times’ by Chic. Check out from 3:12 where the track breaks down and you can hear the role each instrument plays: including the accents on the hi-hats; the electric piano playing the sustained chords on the first beat of every bar from 4:04; and the piano that comes in at the end of each bar from 4:40.


Anyway, hope that helps!



I am fatbobmoonbeam. This though is not my real name. I am a musician, teacher and writer, though not necessarily in that order. I am also a number of other things and I can’t really say for certain what I’ll be posting about on this site, although I am fairly certain that I shall be writing about music and teaching music and maybe about writing. Then again, who knows.

I can’t be entirely certain why I am doing this either, I just hope it will be interesting and entertaining to someone at sometime, or even many people at many times.

I suppose a blog is about sharing your thoughts and ideas. I hope I will have some.