We associate the concept of the hook with pop music, though many genres, even classical music, have them. And when we say hook, we usually mean the chorus hook — that bit of the chorus (or sometimes the entire chorus) that listeners can’t get enough of, and hum it (hopefully) all day long.
There are other kinds of hooks, if by that term we mean something repetitious that’s attractive and catchy, keeping audiences listening. The instrumental background hook, for example, like we hear in the bass line of Pink Floyd’s “Money“, might be every bit as important as any other chorus hook.
There is more than one kind of hook that you could and should be using in your songs. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you why they’re all so important, and how to create them. With lots of examples from pop music history.
In pop genres, hooks are so important that the entire success of the song might come down to the success of the hook. The verse, the bridge, that guitar solo… of course they’re important, but no one will care about them if the chorus hook is weak or simply not doing the job of reeling in listeners.
There are no rules to writing a chorus hook, just as there are no rules about anything in the creative arts. But when you look at decades of pop music and compare their distinctive hooks, you’ll find at least three important characteristics in almost all of them:
- The melody has a distinctive and attention-seeking shape. Most hooks will use mainly stepwise motion, with at least one distinctive melodic leap. And that leap doesn’t need to be a large one. Often it can be a leap upward, followed by stepwise motion, like we hear in the chorus of Lennon & McCartney’s “She Loves You“.
- The chords are tonally strong, where the key of the song is strongly supported. In this case, “She Loves You” won’t be the best example, because the chorus hook in that case starts on the vi-chord. But most other songs will either incorporate the tonic chord, or at least strongly imply the tonic chord. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is a good example of this.
- The rhythm of the hook is strong but simple, one that really gets our toe tapping. Take any successful pop song, and simply say the chorus hook with the correct rhythms, and you’ll see what I mean by this.
In any good song there can be complexities, but by the time you get to the chorus hook, that’s when you’ll notice that things become simpler, uncluttered and clear. It’s an important part of giving audiences something to hum.
So while there are no rules about how to write a chorus hook, you do need to look at your own hook and compare it to whatever you’ve been offering in the verse preceding it. What you should notice is a kind of rhythmic and harmonic simplification, coupled with a melody that’s easy and fun to sing. Do that, and you’ve given your own audience something to remember and hum all day.
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If you like the chords-first songwriting method, you’ll want to read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It deals with the common chords-first problem of how to write a great melody straight from the chords. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
It’s a very different world to practice the art of songwriting in, compared to a generation ago. Social media makes it possible to write a song in the morning and be streaming it to the world by suppertime.
And in this modern world, it also means that you have to steel yourself against backlash from people who may not like what you write, and feel compelled to express that opinion with vitriol and — sometimes — hate.
Everybody has their own way to handle online hate, and I hope you’ve discovered your own way to keep someone else’s negativity from eating away at you. And if you’re finding it hard, keep these thoughts in mind:
- Someone else’s hate of your music is their issue, not yours.
- Every song you write will have likers and haters. Every song you write starts with your personal vision for that song, and it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone will love what you’ve done.
- Someone disliking your song is not an indication that there’s something wrong with your song. It’s simply an indication that their taste in music doesn’t align with yours.
- Don’t change your song because someone has a different idea. Remember, your song starts with your vision, not theirs. Change your song if you’ve come up with a better idea.
- Be kind to other songwriters online, encourage them in their uniqueness, and give honest, considerate responses if they’re asking for opinions. You’ve done that correctly if they feel encouraged and inspired after they read your comment. (This is what you’d want for yourself, isn’t it?)
There will always be haters. It may feel good to fire back with your own harsh comments. But it doesn’t change anything.
What you need to do is this: every time you record something and then stream it, be sure it sounds just the way you want it to sound. That’s what you’re supposed to do. To change your song to suit someone else’s taste won’t make you happy.
It takes a lot of courage to be a songwriter in the 21st century. There are days when online criticism will eat away at you. But the only relevant part of songwriting is this: “Do I like what I’ve written?”
If you’re trying to improve your songwriting skills, you need basic grounding in the fundamentals. That’s what you get with “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Right now, get a copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process” FREE when you get the Bundle.
A few days ago I wrote a post in which I talked about the chords-first method of songwriting (“Giving Your Melodies Some Shape in the Chords-First Songwriting Process“), and warning of the main pitfall of this process: the ignored and uninteresting melody that might result.
As in all things in songwriting, you can find exceptions to anything you extoll as an important guideline. In this particular case, as soon as I had written that post, I started to wonder if there are any good examples of music that seems to be mainly all about the chord progression, with no, or almost no, melody.
The answer is yes. And in fact, the composer J.S. Bach, known for his beautifully crafted melodies (“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring“, as one famous example), also wrote the equally famous “Prelude in C Major” for keyboard. As you can hear, its chord progression figures prominently in a series of arpeggiated chords, but it’s difficult to identify a melody:
In music like this, you can sometimes hear the topmost notes of the chords as being a kind of melody, and perhaps that’s what Bach wanted us to notice. But what we seem to appreciate and enjoy most is the beautiful series of chords themselves. There’s a kind of momentum and direction that we pick up from the chords, with seemingly little need for a melody to hum.
The French composer Charles Gounod took this Bach Prelude in C Major and created a melody above the chords (he called it “Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach”, often also called “Ave Maria” when sung.). You can hear that the lovely melody he wrote works well with the chords — a seemingly natural fit.
But the Prelude works beautifully well even without Gounod’s contributed tune.
There are other examples of music from the classical world where the chords seem to take precedence over the melody. The well known “Pachelbel Canon” is a good example. There are definitely melodies, but we seem to fixate almost entirely on the strong and engaging set of chords.
Another French composer, Charles-Marie Widor, a composer of organ symphonies, wrote a “Toccata” for his fifth symphony. Again, there are melodies, but with the constant “broken chords” that we hear, we tend to focus primarily on the chords.
So if melody’s supposed to be so important…
So what does all this mean for songwriters? Is it actually possible to write music that gives us little or even nothing for a melody? And if melody is so important because it gives us something to hum, as I’ve been asserting, what accounts for the high popularity of these seemingly melody-less musical works?
Because most pop music is sung, you obviously need to be able to give the singer something to sing. And once a voice enters the musical performance, we find our attention moves from whatever we were enjoying before to the voice. And as Gounod shows with his “Ave Maria” melody, if you’re going to write a melody, you’d better make it a good one!
And so the answer to whether or not you can write a song with with minimal melody, the answer is yes, you can write an instrumental that seems to be all about the chords, as long as those chords are tonally strong, pulling the listener in and engaging them.
And one other thing: you’ll notice that the instrumentals that seem to be all about the chords tend to use chords that are simple, very common, and tonally strong, not unique or overly inventive.
As a songwriter, being unique is a vital part of your success. If you’re not giving the world something that’s singular and distinctive — in some way different from all the other songs out there — then you’re simply copying someone else’s success.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
But all art, whether you’re talking about songs, paintings, novels, sculpture or poetry, is actually a blend of two things: art and craft. The craft part is the technical aspect. If you’re a sculptor, for example, the craft of sculpting is your actual technique — your prowess — with the tools.
The art of sculpting goes beyond craft. The art is the actual piece we look at. The sculptor takes a piece of clay and, beginning with a personal vision of what the final piece will look like, fashions a final work that is unique, nothing quite like other works of art out there.
But the art of sculpting does depend on a high level of crafting skills. If you don’t work well with the tools, you’re not going to be able to realize your personal vision of what you want the final piece to look like.
All of this applies to songwriting as well. There is a technical (craft) side of songwriting, and there is also an artistic side. All good songs, like all good sculptures, represent a balanced blend of craft and art.
Craft: Following a Pattern
If you’ve ever been to a craft market, you get to see the world of craft and art, where the balance is strongly toward craft, and not so much toward art.
As a good example, you’ll likely see (if you live in northern climates like mine), someone sitting behind a table selling mittens that they’ve just knitted. If all the mittens look similar to each other, it’s because the same pattern was used to create them all.
The only difference between the various pairs would be the colour of the wool they’ve chosen. Other than that, we see their level of craftsmanship on full display. But art? Since there was no unique vision for what any pair of mittens would look like when finished, the mittens represent craft, not art — certainly not in any meaningful way.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. For my mittens, I need them to fit my hands and to keep them warm, and since my hand is like all other human hands, with the only meaningful difference being size, I need my mittens to be the same shape as every other pair of mittens made out there.
But how about songwriting? Now we need things to be balanced more toward art: a unique, personal vision of what the final version of the song will sound like.
Art: Making Decisions that Set Your Song Apart
Your prowess with the craft of songwriting ensures that your song will, like others:
- be structured to have verses and perhaps a chorus;
- use chord progressions that feature a tonic chord as an important harmonic goal;
- use melodies that are supported by the chord progressions;
- use lyrics that allow listeners to generate feelings.
But those things come under the heading of the craft of songwriting. What about the art of songwriting? In order for your songs to truly be art, there needs to be something intentionally unique about your song.
In other words, once your audience has heard your new song, they need to have heard something that they’ve never really heard before. When The Beatles recorded their Rubber Soul album, the songs themselves were unique. Every song was just a little different from other songs that pop groups of the day were doing, “Norwegian Wood” and “Michelle” being great examples.
And even the songs that were more similar to the normal fare that listeners might expect were performed in unique ways that only The Beatles might do: the bass through a fuzzbox in George Harrison’s “Think For Yourself“, for example.
The best songwriters lean toward uniqueness as an instinct. To not do so means that you’re simply copying what other songwriters and performers have done.
And if all you’re really concerned about is copying a pattern that’s been set down before, then you’ll have given your listeners something palatable, but not likely representative of art.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression”. Discover the secrets of making the chords-first songwriting process work for you.
There’s an inherent danger in writing songs by starting with the chords, which is that the melody can get a bit static and uninteresting. You may have come up with a chord progression you really like, but when you try to add a melody to that, you often find yourself stuck on one or two notes.
There’s a reason that happens: because you’re vamping back and forth on, let’s say, two chords (C-Bb, for example), the melodic ideas that you come up with tend to sit around one or two notes, fitting with whatever the chord of the moment is.
That’s certainly not to say that the chords-first method won’t work. And in fact, I’ve written an eBook (“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“) that deals with these sorts of problems and hopefully makes the chords-first process work a little better for you.
So if the main problem with the chords-first songwriting method is that you might create a static, uninteresting melody, here’s something you can try to help mitigate that problem:
- Play your chord progression a few times.
- Find a starting note that’s relatively low in your voice, and sing that note a few times while playing your progression. That starting note should be a note that belongs to your first chord. So if your first chord is C, your starting note should be the note C, E or G.
- Since it’s quite possible that your starting note will work with your first chord but not the following chord(s), change your note by moving it up or down so that it works with your second chord.
- As you repeat your progression, move your voice higher so that you’re now singing a higher tone belonging to your first chord. Then as you switch to your second chord, sing a note higher than your second-chord note choice in the previous step.
At this point, you’ve played your progression twice, and you’ve created what amounts to a melody with contour — shape: a four-note melody that moves gradually upward. Do the process several times, picking different notes. Here’s one of probably dozens of possibilities:
Those four notes can serve as the start of a melody that has a hint of shape and design, not the usual static melody that sits around on one or two notes that you might be used to. You can create a longer melody with an inverted-U shape by repeating the procedure and working your melody downward.
The main purpose of this procedure is to get you thinking of a mobile, fluid melody that likes to move around, rather than one that sits on one or two notes. Because that is the main challenge of the chords-first songwriting method.
And remember, when people recall your song and hum it, it isn’t chords that they’re likely to be humming — it’s a melody. And if you want people to truly remember your song, they’re more likely to remember a tune than a chord progression.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas. Get the free deal!
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5 Characteristics of Great Song Lyrics
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Why Hooks are So Important to Pop Songs
I’m Gary Ewer. For years I’ve been helping songwriters understand the basic fundamentals of good songwriting. I do that mainly through the free articles on this blog, and also through my 10-eBook bundle. If you lack consistency in your songwriting, and you want to take your abilities to the next level, everything you need to know is in that bundle package, so please take a look at those ebooks. And if you want to browse through the more than 2300 posts in the blog archive, scroll to the bottom of this page.
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