In Writing Music for Hit Songs, songwriting coach and mentor Jai Josefs writes, “Hook is perhaps the most important word in the songwriter’s vocabulary, at least in the realm of song structure.”
What makes a hook so important? Hooks hook your audience: They stir emotions, embed themselves in memory. They’re the part of your song people will sing in the shower the next morning or ten years later. In short, hooks are addictive, and that’s a good thing.
“Piece o’ cake,” I thought when I decided to write a column on hooks. “I mean, I already know what a hook is. Doesn’t everyone?” But I didn’t want to trigger any trolls, so I went to the books to pin it down. Two days later, I was still seeking a simple definition. Once upon a time, it seems, people knew to a moral certainty what a hook was. But songwriting has been evolving, and so has the meaning of the word.
The Classical Definition
Josefs says that hooks generally contain the song’s title and are repeated frequently, ensuring they will reverberate in memory. Thus their natural home is the chorus. A catchy melody, of course, is a big part of memorability. Paul McCartney, who describes his songs as “melodies in search of words,” seems to concur.
On the other hand, in Songwriting – A Complete Guide To The Craft, Stephen Citron says that once you have your concept, your first goal should be to condense the essence of your song into a few memorable words. That’s your hook. Then you set it to music. Songwriting teams such as Elton John and Bernie Taupin divvy up the labor this way, but there’s no reason you can’t do both at once.
Singability is important, which means using scale steps or easy skips (3rds, 4ths, 5ths). The melody should stay within an octave and complex rhythms should be avoided. Distinctive harmony also contributes. In the end you pray for catchiness, for as Tim Blanning says in The Triumph Of Music, “I would sacrifice everything — rhyme, reason, sense, and sentiment — to catchiness.”
Focus on hooks: Rule #1 in popular music is to avoid giving the listener an excuse to change channels, which is why artists often lead out with an emotion-packed hook. Consider “When A Man Loves A Woman” (Percy Sledge); “She Loves You,” “Good Day Sunshine” (Beatles); “Purple Haze,” “Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix; “Everybody’s Talkin’ (Nilsson). When the chorus is delayed, the anticipation can amplify the power of the hook, as in Neal Finn’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
Take twenty songs and home in on the hook. Where is it? How does it contrast to its surroundings? Analyze harmony, melody, and rhythm. Finally, cook up five hooks that you wouldn’t be afraid to lead out with, like those listed above.
The classical hook is partly a product of AM radio format, which calls for grabbing audience attention fast and holding on tight for three minutes. AM radio was particularly dominant in the ’50s and early ’60s, but its grip began to loosen in the late ’60s when FM took the cap off the time limit and opened up niche markets. Americana, for example, was born at a California FM station in the ’70s. While FM reduced the stress on “danceable,” disco demanded it at high volume over longer time spans, which energized instrumental hooks. The Internet has pushed these trends further, niche markets in particular.
The diminishing attention span of the smartphone generation calls for more hooks more often. All these influences add up to a new approach: As long as any part of a song does what a hook is supposed to do, it’s a hook, and the more hooks, sayeth Marketing, the merrier.
The new, broader definition emphasizes the hook as a structural element, a glue that “hooks things together.” “A Woman Like You,” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, for example, ishooked together by a guitar riff that’s a real earworm.
Hooks thrive on contrast. Take “When A Man Loves A Woman,” for example. The first four notes are La–La–La–Sol — almost a flat line. The next four skip down and bounce back: Sol–Mi–Sol–La. The lesson is simple: You should view every note as a springboard to a contrasting rhythm, harmony, or melodic motif, and never go more than three or four notes into a hook without hitting the contrast button. Study the hooks to 20 more songs and you will see that many consist of two parts: a setup and a contrast.
Once you fully absorb the principle of contrast, you can extend it to phrases, sections, verses and choruses. Contrast can be as simple as a change of rhythm or harmony. In “Can’t Fight The Moonlight,” for example, LeAnn Rimes modulates up a half-step for the chorus.
Write at least five more hooks based on the idea of a two-part contrast. A good hook is a terrible thing to waste, so try to write at least one song.
Friedemann Findeisen has many insights into modern songwriting, hooks included. See “How Taylor Swift Writes Melodies” on his Holistic Songwriting channel for starters.