A musical element that repeats throughout a song is called a motive, or motif. It’s not really a hook (though a good hook uses a motif.) With a hook, you get a musical figure that continuously repeats throughout a song in an unmodified form, and really gets inside the brain of the listener. With a motif, you get a recurring fragment that the listener might not actually be aware of, and this fragment is modified to create other related fragments.
So if the listener is not necessarily aware of the existence of a motif, what good is it?! Read on..
A motif is a rhythmic or melodic idea that is used as a template for the rest of the rhythmic or melodic ideas in a song. And all the classics use motifs. For a rhythmic motif, think of Bruce Springsteen’s song, “Born in the USA.” Springsteen puts a strong rhythmic pulse on the second beat of most bars. The second beat is where the word “Born” occurs. As you listen, you’ll notice that every line either starts on beat 2, or it has a special accent that occurs on beat 2. This is a rhythmic motif. If you asked a listener if they like the special significance that beat 2 gets in this song, they’d probably not really know what you’re talking about. But the fact that it’s there glues the song together, and really makes it work.
The repeating melody that accompanies the words “Born in the USA” repeats over and over, and is actually the hook of the song. The fact that it starts on a certain note, descends a bit, rises a bit, and then returns to its original note, is the melodic motif.
Your songs will be more successful if you can build them using particular melodic or rhythmic motifs. Think of a motif as something similar to doing the interior designing of a house. You might decide to use the colour yellow in various ways throughout the house. In one room, it might be the main colour. In another, it might be an accent colour. And in still another, it might be picked up in the choice of flowers in the vase. The visitor to the house might not be aware of the colour yellow as a motif, but will nonetheless get the sense that there is a feeling of unity throughout the house. That’s what a motif does.
As you work on your song, try to link it all together by choosing a specific rhythmic idea, like Springsteen did, or perhaps a melodic shape that gets repeated in some way or another. By incorporating these similar ideas throughout the song, the listener feels a sense of unity, and they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction, even though they may not know why.