For most songs in the pop genre, the bit that you really love will be some short, catchy fragment. That fragment — the hook — is the bit that you’ll remember forever about that song. Long after you’ve forgotten almost everything else, you’ll remember that hook.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
Everything else in the song has the duty of supporting and providing focus for the hook. That’s not to say that all the other bits don’t have their own intrinsic value, but without a doubt everything in a song that leads up to the hook whets the appetite of the listener and points to that hook as being the most important moment.
In many pop songs, the chorus hook gets placed right at the start of the chorus. There are other kinds of hooks, of course, if you count anything in a song that grabs attention and helps to make a song memorable. But the chorus hook is the bit you’ll keep humming and singing to yourself. If you like Adele’s music and you find yourself singing the line “Rumour has it…” over and over again, you know what I’m talking about.
So what does everything else in a song need to do in order to make a hook stand out and sound important? Here’s a short list of song elements that have the job of creating musical anticipation and excitement:
- The Verse Melody: A verse melody has a somewhat meandering quality; it can wander up and down, though over its length often in an upward direction. That gradual upward movement helps to build musical momentum and excitement, and causes the listener to want to hear the culmination of that upward movement: the chorus hook.
- The Verse Lyric: A good verse lyric sets the stage and builds a story, either literally or through implication. As each part of that story is described, the listener all the more wants to hear the emotional result of that story. That’s how chorus hooks become so powerful. They give us the ultimate summation of the emotion contained in the story (“Baby, you’re a firework!” “Raise your glass if you are wrong…” “Glory Days”)
- Pre-Chorus: A pre-chorus really has just one main purpose, which is to make a better connection to the chorus than would be possible without it. So almost by definition, a pre-chorus’s purpose is to do what a verse does (i.e., target the chorus), but to do so in a more obvious, specific way. If your pre-chorus isn’t building musical energy, it’s missing the main purpose of its existence!
- Instrumentation/Production: The choices you make in instrumentation have a lot to do with how we process musical momentum. A song’s verse will often offer a somewhat transparent instrumental treatment, so that when the chorus happens we feel excitement from the chorus hook by the sudden build-up of production and sound. Listen to Now, Now’s “SGL” for a great example of how instrumentation and production build and increase musical energy. We hear the culmination of that build at about 1’45” with the addition of vocal harmonies.
All songs need something that keeps people coming back. In most cases, that’s the hook. It would be a mistake to think that nothing else matters, though. The perfect partnership of all song bits makes the hook shine all the more.
And if you’ve got nothing else good in a song except a good hook, you’ve got a song with problems: a hook won’t solve everything. Remember, adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook. And that’s something that needs to be fixed.
“Adia” (Pierre Marchand, Sarah McLachlan) is one of Sarah McLachlan’s most successful singles, her first top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 back in 1998. From a musical point of view it’s probably most notable for its beautiful melody and creative chord progression, and well worth a quick study.
The melody (in C minor/Eb Major) has two distinctive sections, a first part that moves freely from the midrange, then down to the lower notes of McLachlan’s range (“Adia, I know I’ve let you down..”), then leaping upward to give us kind of climactic high point for the verse (“…love you in my way/ It’s easy, let it go..”):
The melody has some interesting moments, including some attempts at what we call word painting, which is an attempt by the songwriters to convey the meaning of the text through specific melodic characteristics. For just example, the words “let you down” are partnered with some of the lowest notes of the song.
In a less obvious way, the leap upward on “It’s easy…” is the kind of melodic shape that emphasizes the meaning of the words — it helps us to feel them, in a way.
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The second verse starts as the first, but then changes to give us its second distinctive quality: a melody that becomes much more static, focusing mainly on the F-G midrange as the lines become shorter and punchier:
There’s no one left to finger
There’s no one here to blame
There’s no one left to talk to, honey
And there ain’t no one to buy our innocence
That static quality of the melody as the chords underneath move toward the chorus gives those lines a kind of pre-chorus feel, and we hear the musical energy building to the eventual start of the chorus.
Ballads typically use more creative progressions than uptempo songs. That’s usually because slower tempos allow listeners to process more complex chords, and that’s true in practically any genre of music.
There are some really nice moments in both the verse and chorus in “Adia”:
Cm Ab Eb Cm Ab Gm| Eb Ab Eb/G Cm….. F7 Eb Bb
The F7 is a secondary dominant chord – a major chord when we’d normally be expecting a minor (Fm normally belongs to Eb major).
Eb Dbdim Ab Fm Bb| Gm Dbdim Fm G7
The second Dbdim in that progression almost comes across as a C7 with the bass playing an appoggiatura Db note. In any case, it’s another really lovely moment in the progression.
The chorus chords end on G7 which makes the transition back to the Cm chord at the start of the 2nd verse easier.
It’s a common songwriting technique to use quicker vocal rhythms in a song’s verse and then switch to longer note values in the chorus, and we get that in “Adia”. The verse lyrics come as a combination of 8th-notes and 16ths through much of the verse.
Then in the chorus the rhythms elongate, become based more on a combination of 8ths and quarter notes. That gives a more relaxed feel to the lyric, but the real reason songwriters make that change has to do with lyrical emotion: lyrics feel deeper, more poignant and emotional when note durations become longer.
In the lyric itself, we’re never given a clear indication who she’s singing about, but in any case it seems to be a loved one needing guidance and advice. You’ll note the difference between the kinds of words and phrases that we see in the verse: “…I do believe I’ve failed you/…I know I’ve let you down..”…I tried so hard..”, etc. We tend to pick up a general downward direction from the melodic fragments that get paired with many of those lines.
By contrast, the chorus feels more hopeful: “We are born innocent…” “believe me…”, “it’s easy”, and so on. And partnered with those more hopeful lines we pick up a general upward direction from the melody.
There are many principles of good songwriting, but one of the most important ones is that all song elements partner together to produce a good song. In other words, melodies are only ever amazing if they partner well with the lyrics and chords.
Chord progressions can never be killer progressions if they aren’t supporting a great melody. How any one song does that is different, and getting all the parts working together is, in fact, what good songwriting always is.
In “Adia,” we get a kind of songwriting clinic on how important it is to consider the partnership of components as being crucial to the success of a song. In that sense, any good song is always better than the sum of its parts.
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Let’s say you’ve come up with a hook that you think should be something that works well as the main flag-waving part of your chorus. So then you set about to write a verse that leads into that chorus.
But once that’s done, and you play the verse and chorus in sequence, you find that the song just doesn’t have the punch you thought it would. Everything seems a bit low-key or sluggish.
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If you’ve identified the chorus as being the bit that’s lacking some power or catchiness, there are several things you can experiment with in your attempt to write something with a bit more energy. Here’s one to try:
Raise the key of the chorus.
Most of the time the verse and chorus will be in the same key, but you can try transitioning from the verse key into something higher for the chorus.
Let’s say that you’ve written your song in C major, and your verse chords are these ones, played 2 times before moving to the chorus:
C Dm C Dm |F C Dm Bb (Click play button below to listen)
If your chorus stays in C major, you might use something like this as a progression:
C G/B Am F |C G/B Am F….
Now, let’s say that even if you’ve moved your chorus melody a bit higher than the verse (as you likely should), everything seems a bit sluggish. There’s just not enough difference between what you’ve done for the verse and what you’ve done for the chorus:
VERSE: C Dm C Dm |F C Dm Bb ||
CHORUS: C G/B Am F |C G/B Am F….
Here’s the option: Use that Bb chord at the end of the verse as a transitioning chord to a new key of Eb major.
That would give you this as a verse-chorus combination:
VERSE: C Dm C Dm |F C Dm Bb ||
CHORUS: Eb Bb/D Cm Ab |Eb Bb/D Cm Ab….
You can hear that the music gets a bit of a jolt from this new key. The Bb chord at the end of the verse acts as a dominant chord that moves you easily to Eb major.
You can also consider what’s called an abrupt modulation, which means that you can move immediately to the new key with little or no preparation — like you hear in the abrupt semitone modulation near the end of “Man in the Mirror” (Siedah Garrett, Glen Ballard).
And one other solution to consider: if you find that your chorus sounds lacklustre, it might be that the verse is too energetic, making it difficult for the chorus to shine. If that’s the case, the solution involves looking more closely at the verse and finding ways to lower its energy level, by thinning out the production or lowering the general pitch range of the verse melody.
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The following is an excerpt from the ebook manual, “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting, 4th Ed.” It’s an eBook that covers every aspect of how good songs work, with sound samples that let you hear the concepts at work so that you can apply them to your own songs.
This excerpt, from “Chapter 3: Designing a Song”, talks about contrast, and particularly how it makes songs more interesting to the listener, even though its effects are subtle.
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Music historians will tell you that one of the most persistent features of composition from at least the sixteenth century to present day is the basic principle of contrast. Whether you’re talking about early Baroque concerti or 21st century pop songs, contrasting elements within a song has been standard practice for centuries. Contrast is the component that helps to build interest within a song. It’s the main formal principle in the writing of music:
Form Principle #1
Songs without contrast risk being boring.
In a sense, form is the control of contrast within music. How a song’s energy ebbs and flows, how the melody moves up and down, how the chords move from mainly minor to mainly major, even how music goes from soft to loud — these are all examples of the contrast principle at work. If your songs sound boring and you can’t figure out why, it is usually related to the absence of enough contrast. It’s like staring at a flat field in your backyard with nothing to distinguish one part of it from another. Contrast sets things apart. Contrasting elements within a song brings out beauty in much the same way that landscapers create contours to make a flat bit of land more beautiful and interesting.
In fact, the contrast principle is a little bit more than simply creating a distinction between opposite qualities. The principle actually states that when we perceive two qualities in succession (say, soft and then loud), how we perceive the loudness – how loud it seems – is influenced by the soft section that precedes it. It’s important to make note of that, because some songs display contrast in remarkably subtle ways. Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”, from her “Hejira” album (1975) displays a very constant wash of sound from beginning to end with what seems like little or no change in dynamics over its 5- minute length. But compare the sound of the opening intro to the return of that intro material at 3’ 02”, and you’ll hear what a subtle opening up of the sound does to the musical energy. The music at 3 minutes is more energetic and louder than the beginning, even though to most people’s ears it sounds identical. The importance of that subtle change in sound is what the contrast principle is all about.
On the previous page I used the analogy of landscapers creating contours to make land more interesting. So how does one contour music? It happens when we compose verses as being separate entities from choruses, for example. As mentioned, much of how we put songs together will happen on an instinctive level, but it is going to be an important part of improving your songwriting prowess to examine these sections and see how they differ from each other. Let’s look at some well-known and well-used formal designs that show up in music of many different genres. We call them “macro” designs, because they refer to the overall layout of the song itself.
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For most songwriters, defining a hook is simple: it’s that catchy bit that makes up the main part of the chorus. It usually comes back over and over because that’s what choruses do — they reappear after every verse, and then again after the bridge.
A hook is good if it has a melodic shape that’s easy to remember and fun to sing. It usually needs to be supported by a short, tonally strong chord progression. If you think of some of the most memorable, famous ones, like perhaps “Born In the U.S.A.” (Springsteen) and “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees), you’ll know the power of a good hook.
To make the most of your song’s hook, read “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.” That eBook is available at the online store, or you can get it as part of the 10-eBook Bundle.
A motif has some similarities to a hook, especially with regard to the fact that it repeats throughout a song. But while a hook sounds pretty much the same each time you hear it, a motif might actually change over the length of a song.
Motifs are subtle; they do their work mainly in the background, in the sense that you usually only notice the effect of a good motif. If you want a good example of the subtlety I’m talking about, listen to Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” (Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, K’naan).
The song starts with the chorus, and pay close attention to the way the melody line of the chorus unfolds: several notes all of the same pitch (“Today I don’t feel…”) followed by several melody notes that move gradually downward (“like doing anything…”). It’s all glued together by a strong sense of 8th-note pulsing over a reggae beat.
That idea repeats for the next line. Then for contrast, we get a new idea: a melody that moves up and down mainly in the opposite direction (“Don’t feel like pickin’ up my phone…”). But you still get the sense that there’s a similarity in the way that line works. In other words, though it contrasts with the first line, we still get the idea that “it belongs to the song.” But in a sense, it’s different enough that we can think of it as a separate motif:
That sense of belonging is what motifs can do. We still get the strong impression of that pulsing 8th-note feel through both motifs, even though the melody of the second motif uses a lot of syncopation.
When the song moves on to the verse, each line starts with several notes all of the same pitch (“I’m gonna kick my feet up…”) — that’s Motif #1. When we hear “Nobody’s gonna tell me I can’t“, that’s Motif # 2.
For the rest of the song, each melodic line comes from either one of those two motifs. When we hear “Yes I said it, I said it…”, that’s a kind of melding together of both motifs, and that’s when we get the real power of motifs: mixing, matching, changing, morphing ideas.
The end result is that all the bits of melody that happen within the song sound like they’re related to each other. In that way, motifs act like a kind of musical glue.
I’ve mentioned this idea of motif before in previous blog posts. The verse of The Beatle’s “Penny Lane” features a skipping kind of rhythm using mainly downward-moving melodic cells (“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs…“). Then for the chorus, we get that very beginning fragment, the tiny bit from the first 3 notes: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…“.
Using Motifs in Your Own Songwriting
Most of the time good songwriters are using this kind of motivic development without even realizing it; there’s a measure of instinct at play here. But it’s good to be aware of how motifs work, because it is something you can apply after the fact.
Occasionally I get emails from songwriters who tell me that their melodies just don’t seem to work well together, and I can almost guarantee that the problem will relate to some kind of misuse of (or absense of) motivic development.
It’s ideal if there is a strong sense of connection between each line of your verse and chorus melody. That connection most often comes from similar rhythms and melodic shapes, and we call that similarity a motif.
So put the magnifying glass on your melodies and do a bit of analysis. You want some kind of connection between most of the lines within each section. Another good song to study as a model for motif is Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya Salmanzadeh, Ali Payami, Tove Nilsson).
If motifs aren’t something you’ve even noticed before, it’s because motifs don’t wave a big flag like hooks do. Motifs do most of their work in the background, and as I say, you are usually more aware of the effect of motifs than you are with their actual presence.
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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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