Creating a Lyrical Hook

In songwriting, a hook is a short, catchy element within a song that gets repeated often, particularly in the chorus. There are many kinds of hooks, however, and if you’d like to read about those, try this article: “Exploring a Deeper Definition of a Song Hook.”

One hook type that that article doesn’t directly address is the lyrical hook. What is it, and how do you create one?


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A typical lyrical hook goes hand-in-hand with whatever instrumental hook sets up the title, and in that sense, the song’s title is often a lyrical hook. Like any other kind of hook, it’s a bit of lyric that gets repeated over and over. It’s fun to say and sing — it kind of “flies off the tongue”, if you will.

Just as with creating an instrumental hook, a lyrical hook is often the product of lots of improvisation, trying word combinations, and working closely with the rhythmic groove of the instrumental backing. A lyrical hook is usually an important ingredient in a chorus hook:

  • “Rockin’ Robin (tweet, tweet, tweet)…”
  • “Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive”
  • “Because I’m happy (clap along…)”
  • “Na na na na na na na, na na na na, Hey Jude”
  • “We found love in a hopeless place…”

Songs do just fine without the inclusion of an obvious lyrical hook. But if your song features a chorus hook, it’s likely that it will need to have a catchy lyric associated with it that forms the title.

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you search for words that will grab the audience’s attention:

  1. Use simple, clear words that are easy to sing. I don’t know of a song called “She Sells Sea Shells.”
  2. Experiment with alliteration. That means find adjacent (or almost adjacent) words that start with the same sound. “Paved paradise”, “Bye bye blackbird”, “Blue Bayou”, etc.
  3. Set up a rhythmic groove and improvise word combinations. Making sure that the words have a rhythmic element is crucial to the success of a lyrical hook.
  4. Be sure the words in a lyrical hook are properly set up by the verse lyrics that precede them. In that sense, a lyrical hook serves as an important focal point for your song’s lyric.
  5. Make certain that the words of your hook sound right when they’re repeated. Since repetition is an important part of the success of any hook, sing them over and over in order to fine-tune your choice of words.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

“Essential Chord Progressions”Essential Chord Progressions give you hundreds of progressions you can use as is, or modify to suit the songs you’re working on. If all you need are some chords to get you going, check out this ebook collection.

Posted in Hook, lyrics and tagged , , , , , , , , .
Bruno Mars - Mark Ronson

Key Suggestions for Song Sections

You know that there are many songs where verses and choruses are in different keys. When it comes to questions about chord progressions that I receive, the most common kinds of questions relate to that issue: how to get from one key to another in a typical song.

It’s not unusual for a song to change key somewhere, but keep in mind that the most common situation is actually to start and end in the same key. And some songs, like the enormously successful “Uptown Funk” (Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, et al), key of D minor (D Dorian, actually), keep it very simple, featuring only two chords: Dm and G, from the beginning to the end.


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For songs that do change key, the most common key change is the minor-to-major switch. That is, a song that starts with a minor key verse, then switches to the relative major for the chorus. If the song uses a bridge, you’ll find that more often than not it will start in the relative minor, but quickly (by the 5th or 6th bar of that bridge) start wandering back to major for those final chorus repeats:

Typical Pop Song Key Changes

That kind of shifting key, from C major to A minor and back again, is a wonderful way to allow musical energy to ebb and flow. There’s a brightness that comes when the listener hears that shift from minor to major, and the relative major-minor relationship is probably the most common way to achieve that.

So a song using that plan might use the following chord progressions:

TYPICAL EXAMPLE:

  • VERSE: Am  G  F  Em  |Am  G  F  Em  |Dm  F  G  F  |Dm  F  G____|| (optional repeat)
  • CHORUS: C  F  Dm  G  |D  F  Dm  G|  Am  Em  F  C  |Am  Em  F  G|| (optional repeat)
  • BRIDGE: Am  Em  F  Dm  |Am  EM  F  Dm  |Am  G  F  Am  Bb  F  G____||

There are other relationships to consider, like keeping the verse and chorus in the same key, but moving to the ii-chord as a key centre in the bridge, as John Lennon does in “Real Love”:

  • VERSE: E  G#m/D#  C#m  B+  |A  F#m  B  E  A  E|
  • CHORUS: E  Am  E  Am…
  • BRIDGE (Instrumental break): F#m C#  F#m  Bsus4  B  Bsus4  B

In any case, the benefit of a key change is that the audience experiences the pleasant tension of feeling the music wander away from the home key, and then the comfort of eventually hearing the home key return.

Switching Keys

So how do you make sure that moving from one key to another is done smoothly and without any kind of unpleasant “hiccup”? Your most important responsibility there is to look at the final chord or two of one section, and then be sure that they move smoothly to the new key.

It’s common for the beginning of a bridge to use a so-called abrupt modulation, in which the switch to minor isn’t hinted at. You’ll hear that at the start of the instrumental bridge for “Real Love” is in F# minor, but there was no indication at the end of the chorus that a key change was coming.

But for switching from minor verse to major chorus, you’ll often hear a more considered preparation of the new key. In the “TYPICAL EXAMPLE” shown above, notice that even though the progression is in A minor, the end of the progression looks more and more like C major, paving the way for an easy transition to that key.

Tips

If you’re considering other kinds of key relationships in your songwriting, remember the following:

  1. Smoother transitions are always safer than abrupt ones.
  2. Don’t always play it safe. 😉
  3. Minor to major (verse to chorus) is far more common, and often more successful, than major to minor.
  4. For songs that use the same progression in the verse and chorus (or for any kind of refreshing moment in a song), consider bumping the chorus up into a new, higher key. Moving to a lower chorus key can work as well, as long as the melody moves higher. (Example: “Penny Lane”, which moves from a B major verse to an A major chorus).
  5. For songs where verse and chorus are in the same key, definitely consider switching to a new key for a bridge.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Using Deceptive Cadences to Make Chord Progressions More Interesting

I mentioned cadences in my last post. A cadence is the end of a musical phrase — the end of a line of music or lyric. Sometimes that cadence sounds temporary, when the lyric sounds like the a pause in the middle of a sentence (at a comma), and sometimes much more final, like the end of a verse, chorus, or other major section.

Using music theory terminology, we say that a cadence that sounds temporary is, more often than not, a half cadence, while a more permanent-sounding cadence is usually a so-called authentic cadence.


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The actual chord you use at a cadence point is the main way of identifying what kind of cadence it is. If your song is in the key of C major, a half cadence will usually end on a V-chord, like this one:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G (I  IV  ii  IV  I6  V7/V  V)

As you can hear if you play through that progression, it sounds incomplete, as if it needs to keep going. It’s easy to see why it sounds this way: it ends on the dominant chord (V), and not the tonic chord (I).

If you put a C at the end of that progression, you’ll hear how much more final it sounds. In fact, you can play through the entire progression twice, once with an ending on the V-chord (a half cadence), and again with a tonic chord finisher (an authentic cadence), and you’ve got the kind of progression that might serve as a verse or chorus progression in most pop genres, like the following mid-tempo country ballad mock-up:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G | C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G  C

Listen:

Using a Deceptive Cadence

A deceptive cadence means that the entire progression ended on a chord that was unexpected. By unexpected, we mean that it moves onto a chord that was not the typical end for that kind of progression.

The most common type of deceptive cadence is to end on a vi chord, like this:

C  F  Dm  F  C/E  D7  G |Am  Em…

Listen: 

As you can see, it adds a lot of interest to a chord progression because it moves into a new key area, and now sounds as though you might continue your song, at least temporarily, in the key of A minor.

Beyond the obvious variety that this kind of deceptive cadence offers, it’s also valuable for another reason: a lot of pop songs use a minor verse and a major chorus. If that’s the way you’ve designed your song, you’ll find that you can use a deceptive cadence at the end of your major chorus to get back into the minor key of your verse.

The sample deceptive cadence above is what is called a melded cadence, which means that the end of one phrase (the Am chord) is the start of a new phrase.

Though my example above moved to Am (vi), you can use any chord other than where our ears (and the rules of harmony) thought the progression might move. Some other good choices to experiment with might be the ii-chord (Dm), or the flat-VI (Ab).

To summarize, a deceptive cadence simply means that you took the chord at the end of a phrase and changed it to something less typical — less expected. It’s a great way to take your chord progression in a new direction.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Checking the Resting Points in a Verse Melody

By “resting point”, I’m talking about spots in a melody, usually the end of a musical phrase, where the note is usually longer than the ones that precede it. In music theory terminology, a resting point is synonymous with the cadence.


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So let’s define things a bit more precisely. A phrase is a line of music. You’ll find that in many songs, the end of every line (or at least most lines) of lyric is the end of a musical phrase. Sometimes that phrase can sound incomplete, needing more to make it sound finished, like the end of the first line of lyric:

“Load up on guns, bring your friends” (“Smells Like Teen Sprit” – Nirvana)

Other phrases sound more complete, as if you could actually end the song then and there. You’ll notice these more complete-sounding phrases at the end of a chorus, for example:

“I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way” (“Born This Way” – Lady Gaga)

Verse Melodies, and Resting Points

When you compare a verse and chorus melody, you’ll notice a couple of important differences:

  1. Even though both verse and chorus melodies feature a lot of repetition, the verse melody has more of a wandering quality, moving up and down in an attempt to partner up with the various moods of the verse lyric.
  2. Verse melodies usually give us the song’s lowest pitches, sometimes then moving higher as it seeks to connect smoothly the chorus.

And then there is another important difference:

Verse melodies often avoid the tonic note, while the chorus tends to feature it a bit more.

A tonic note is the note that represents the key of the song. So if your song is in E major, E is the tonic note. There is a sense of finality that comes from that note and chord. When you hear the tonic, whether it’s the tonic note or tonic chord, you’ll find that it offers a strong sense of “home.”

That sense of arriving at home is great in a chorus, particularly at the end, but often less great in a verse. Why? In a verse melody, you want a lot of forward motion — momentum — so that your audience wants to keep listening.

So the more you use the tonic note in a verse, the greater the danger that you’re going to sap the forward motion out of your music. The tonic note and chord makes the melody sound like it’s trying to end.

Now, let’s look at those resting spots I mentioned earlier. Every song melody is comprised of phrases, all or most of which end on a long note. If you’ve just written a new song, check your verse melody, and the end of each line of lyric (i.e., the ends of phrases) for the following characteristics:

  1. The end of each phrase in your verse melody should, more often than not, end on a non-tonic note. If your song is in C major, most of the time you want your melody at the end of each phrase to not be the note C.
  2. If any of your verse phrases end on a tonic note, you’ll want to accompany that note with a non-tonic chord.

Some examples to study:

  1. In “Born This Way” (key of F# major), the melody note at the end of the first phrase is F# – the tonic. But it’s accompanied by a IV-chord (B), and so gives a necessary sense of forward motion.
  2. In “Locked Out of Heaven” – Bruno Mars (key of D minor verse, and F major chorus), the end of every line of verse lyric ends on G, always giving us the sense that the music must continue to give us eventually something more final.
  3. In “Royals” – Lorde (key of D major), each line of verse lyric ends on a non-tonic note, until the final phrase (“No postcode envy”). The last note of the chorus finally gives us a clear tonic note-tonic chord finisher.

If you find in your own songs that the verse never seems to be able to get going, or at least never gives you the sense of energy and forward motion that you’re hoping for, it’s time to do a bit of analysis. Check the long, resting notes that happen in your verse.

If you find you’re overusing the tonic note, find ways to change the chord progression so that it doesn’t coincide with the tonic chord. That may be all the change that’s needed to keep motion in the music.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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Posted in Melody and tagged , , , , , , , , , .

Reinventing the Wheel

As innovative as The Beatles were, there wasn’t much new in their collective songwriting style. They brought ideas to pop music that had been around for years in other genres, and of course, they did it stunningly well.

Their compositional technique gave us some real beauties, but much of what they did had been happening out of the main stream, in the worlds of classical (both traditional and abstract), jazz, country, and many other genres.


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In so doing, they dressed up pop music and showed everyone else how respectable it could be. Pop music as an art form: that was possibly The Beatle’s most important contribution.

Of course, it takes more than simply borrowing the ideas from other genres to be good at what you do. But the songwriter/performers who dig into other styles of musical performance to find their own voice are the ones that truly succeed.

The best songwriters out there are not reinventing the wheel, and you shouldn’t be trying to, either. We’ve got the wheel; now we just need songwriters who can dress it up in an innovative, creative way.

When you write well, though, you succeed at giving the impression that you’ve done just that… reinvented the wheel. You make it sound like no one else could have written something like this.

In a way, it’s true: no one else is writing like you. Everything you do is unique. But it’s important to remember that part of your improvement as a creator of music is your ability to — not just borrow — but to meld the many ideas from the hopefully hundreds of songs you listen to every year.

Those who purposely try to reinvent the wheel usually come up with something that sounds too weird to be enjoyed, too abstract to truly touch the heart of the listener.

If today you’re stuck for songwriting ideas, and everything you try to write just sounds muddled and unpleasant, your time will be better spent listening to good music. The more you listen, the more you’ll absorb into your own personal songwriting style.

There are days when the best songwriting exercise you can do is to listen objectively to songs you like. If today is that day, sit back and listen. You’ll be a better songwriter for it.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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I’m Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You’ll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.

Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.

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