Hooked on the hook
Updated: May 9, 2020
Songs you can listen to once, and start singing the hook or harmony to right away, have mastered imbedding the hook in your head. This is not an easy accomplishment and requires the songwriter focus on creating a hook that works for the song. Not all songs need to have a hook so keep in mind you can make the decision on your song structure from the start and have your own objectives.
We asked Maximilian Wentz, singer songwriter from Boston, MA, recently how he approaches songwriting and he said he creates the hook first when he writes songs, and builds the song around the hook. Everyone in time figures out the best approach for their songwriting. Max's approach makes sense since it will help the hook be more prominent throughout the song.
It is an art to write a great chorus with creative hooks, but once it is achieved the rest falls into place. Once a songwriter masters the hook they will know it, and many times it just pops into their head when they least expect it.
What is a hook? A hook is a musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in pop, rock, R&B, country music to make a song appealing and to "catch the ear of the listener". At times it can be so powerful that the listeners can join along in singing the riff after hearing just one chorus.
It can be a guitar lead line, a Farfisa organ riff, a vocal or a synth, even a Stevie Wonder harmonica trill, or in the case of “Bang a Gong,” a guitar that honks like a horn – or any combination thereof.
The hook and chorus is the most memorable part of any song, especially since it is repeated a couple of times or many times throughout the song. This energy from the hook emanates outward from its center and, in a closed loop or "boomerang effect" hooks the listener in. The hook can be in the bridge, chorus or another part of the song so it doesn't always need to be in the chorus. You can also have many hooks in your song with some more dominant than others.
It’s part of what makes a song radio-ready, but that holds true across any style and era. Famous musicians have gotten really creative with different ways hooks can be used, with no loss of catchiness.
We usually think first about typical hooks in the choruses of pop songs, like “Firework” by Katy Perry or “Locked Out of Heaven” by Bruno Mars.
Even in styles where you might not expect it, hooks are everywhere. In a unique classic blues-rock band like Led Zeppelin, the main melody of “Black Dog” is a very catchy repeating melodic hook, even though the lyrics change each time. The repeating guitar riff is also a memorable instrumental hook.
Rappers use lyrical hooks, like how the first lyric you’ll remember from Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” is the repeating phrase “Sit down, be humble”.
Even some jazz has gotten more popular because of a good hook in the melody, like if you listen to “Blue Monk” by Thelonius Monk, enough times, you won’t be able to get that melody out of your head.
One historic hook with the perfect pop hook is the 1963 single, "I want to hold your hand", by the Beatles. Many claim this was the best hook of all time.
Regardless of style, great hooks are really valuable in getting a song to catch the listener’s attention, stick with them, and grow in popularity, as listeners keep wanting to hear a catchy song again and show it to their friends. Songs with hooks can have a full blown craze like the song "Call me maybe", by Carly Rae Jepsen. It is hook upon hook upon hook, with every element of the song super catchy. The melody is catchy and synth string lines crazy catchy. This simply was masterful hook creation from start to finish, and most people will know the hook even years after its release.
So how do we write a good hook, without getting too technical?
Here are some great tips to come up with a good hook easily.
Listen to a lot of songs you think are catchy, so when you go to write your own, you will naturally write something similar. Do your own research on songs with historic hooks and listen to how they structured the song.
Keep it simple:
Generally speaking, the more complex the melody or lyrics you come up with, the harder it is to make it memorable and catchy. So get straight to the point in your hook, pick a simple melody and lyrics that sums up your song in just a few phrases. Fewer words that are easy to remember work well, and repeating key lyrics is a successful technique commonly used.
Make sure the way you phrase the lyrics in your hook is not awkward and unnatural. One good trick I like for hook writing is to try to come up with lyrics and melody together. Ideally, if you can just start singing whatever lyrics come to mind, with whatever simple melody makes sense over the instrumental, that simple melody might end up being pretty catchy, just because you’re not overthinking it.
It’s also completely fine to write lyrics first, or melody first, but when putting the two together, don’t over-analyze it or try to force the two to fit together. If you have the lyrics, think of the simplest melody that comes to mind. If you have the melody, think of the simplest lyrics that come to mind and fit the message of the song. The more naturally integrated the melody, lyrics, and rhythm, and the more instinctually you write the hook, the more likely it will be catchy.
A hook is meant to repeat! Part of why a hook is memorable is in how it’s written, but another huge part is to repeat it throughout the song. In a typical pop song form, the hook will repeat each chorus for three choruses, but it can repeat even more often than that, such as twice per chorus, or by repeating the last chorus at the end of the song.
Test if the audience catches on:
Play your song for some friends and at some live performances, and play it a handful of times so a bunch of people have heard it more than once. Do they start getting it stuck in their head? If so, you’ve got a really great hook happening! If not, it could be a perfectly fine song, but maybe not a great choice for a single. But if you keep practicing writing catchier hooks, you will know when you’ve got one, because people in your audience will start to remember it and start singing along. The tell tale sign is when the audience starts to engage to the song in the first listen.
Patty Duffey, Co-partner of Artists on the Move, had a band client perform a new holiday song they had just written at a mall Christmas event, and the audience started to sing the song melody during the breaks in the song. This was an immediate reaction to the hook and one that ended up being used in the song recording at the studio this past summer. The audiences can be the best feedback for new songs so it is important to see what the early reactions are before heading to the studio.
When it comes to hooks, you don’t want to get too technical with your writing process. Go with your gut, try different ideas, and when you notice one hooking you and getting stuck in your own head, it will probably be very catchy to your listeners too.
So, write, rewrite and experiment. Writing a great hook is not easy but it worth the time and energy if you want to write a great song. Make it a great songwriting session.
Have fun creating hookier hooks and get your listeners hooked on your hooks.
Written by Owen Korzec and Patty Duffey