Some hit songs—“Louie Louie,” “Whole Lotta Love,” “Bad Guy,” for example—aim to induce dance fever via a heavy beat and a whole lotta repetition. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find “Yesterday” or “Beyond The Sea,” songs that favor melody over beat. Unfortunately, while “melody versus beat” is grounds for a debate over personal preferences, it fails as an engineering concept. As songwriters, we can’t help but hanker for something a little more nuts-and-bolts.
The hook—that catchy, thematic combo of words and melody that typically contains the title of the song—has engineering appeal. Depending on how much variation you apply to the hook, you can cook up anything from “My Sharona” (lots of repetition, little variation) to “Yesterday” (lots of variation).
“Variation” means altering one or more characteristics of the hook, yielding offspring such as “identical melody, different words,” or “identical rhythm, different notes.” Each variation elicits a different emotional response. In the timeless playground of the subconscious, variations overlay each other like “musical rhymes,” forming complex webs of feeling that differ with each listening.
Where pure repetition leads toward ecstasy, musical rhyme leads toward vividly personal experiences. This is what people mean when they say a song is “timeless.” It’s not just nostalgia—it’s the magic of musical rhyme. Skillful use of variation is how to get it.
Take the Beatles’ first No. 1 hit in the U.S., “Love Me Do” (1964). The hook repeats five times in the first verse. Was repetition alone enough to bring on Beatlemania? No. The hook is catchy, so the repetition is delightful, but each repetition is slightly varied: 1.) “Love, Love Me Do,” (the hook); 2.) “You know I love you,” (same melody, rhyming lyric); 3.) “I’ll al – ways be true,” (same melody, rhyming lyric); 4.) “So please… Love Me Do,” (same lyric, melodic rhyme) 5.) “Oh, Love Me Do” (same lyric, bluesy melodic rhyme). Each repetition has a slightly different feel, which triggers an experience greater than the sum of its parts—in short, magic.
Like many enduring hits, “Love Me Do” is based on a three-note hook, an idea that dates way back. See “Three Blind Mice” (16th century), Holborne’s “Fairy Round” (17th century), “Clair de Lune” (19th century), and “Black Hole Sun” (20th century). It keeps on truckin’ today in “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, coming up momentarily.
Relax and tune in on the title hooks in the playlist below. Note the ease of remembering a three-note hook. Notice how you can feel it coming, which sets up a pleasurable cycle of anticipation and reward. Finally, notice how the hook helps structure the song. The hook—plus its repetitions and variations—are like bolts. Everything else is a way to bridge the gaps between the bolts:
“Tea For Two,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Stand By Me,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” “Song Sung Blue,” “Red Red Wine,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rhiannon,” “Yesterday” (note the brilliant melodic rhyme between “Yes-ter-day” and “far a-way”).
Will any three notes do? Technically, yes. But better to keep it simple. The spirited chorus of “Wa-ter-loo,” for example, is “La-La-Sol.” That’s it, yet BBC viewers chose “Waterloo” as the greatest Eurovision song of all time in 2020. The secret has to do with melodic words, small groups of tones with clear emotional connotations. “La-Sol” has been the melodic word for “joy” since the time of Queen Elizabeth, as shown in the joyful opening riff of Dowland’s “My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe”: “Do-Sol-Sol-La-Sol.” We will hear “La-Sol” again in “Everlong.” But first, “Waterloo” has one more lesson to teach us.
Nowhere in the first 18 bars of “Waterloo” do we find a three-note hook. Instead, we hear two-note hooks on “My, my” and “Oh yeah” and some sinewy rising and falling lines that build toward the climactic chorus. Hooks are often accompanied by contrasting material like this. The two-note hooks, for example, are pregnant with the promise of the three-note hook to come. “Red Red Wine” has a contrast-y tagline, “goes to my head.” “Stand By Me” has “Dar-lin’, dar-lin’” (2+2). The first two verses of “Rhiannon” are variations on the title hook.
“Everlong,” by the Foo Fighters, straddles the spectrum from heavy beat to sophisticated melody. The song is a struggle between a joyful two-note hook and a dark three-note hook against a headbanging rhythm. The joyful hook, “La-Sol,” enters on “Hel-lo.” The dark three-note hook, “Do-Ti-La,” enters on “e – ver – long.” The message, underscored by meaningful melody, is that love brings joy but cannot last forever. The argument continues in variations: “Down with me” is a “Do-Ti-La” rhyme. “I throw my – self in – to” mixes both hooks and arrives on the uncertain tone “Re.” No wonder “Everlong” was arranged for a string quartet.
Three-note hooks are clearly recyclable. “One Fine Day,” for example, is “Sol – La – Sol.” Steal a three-note hook and write yourself a song.
In Solfa singing, syllables stand for scale tones. “Joy To The World” makes a perfect textbook: “Do – Ti – La – Sol – Fa – Mi – Re – Do.” “Over The Rainbow”? Sing “Do – Do – Ti – Sol – La – Ti – Do.”