Do a quick online search about songwriting, and many times you’ll read some variation on this sentence: “A song must have a hook.” Depending on what you mean by the word, that could be true. But if you think of the more traditional meaning of “hook”, I happen to believe that other issues are much more important.
But it really depends on what you mean by a hook. Every song needs something that brings the listener back, something that keeps them humming. If they aren’t humming your tune, the song has missed the mark. That bit that you keep humming is the hook.
For many songwriters, the hook often makes its appearance in the intro and certainly the chorus of the song. In such songs, the title incorporates the hook. A hook needs to be short, because a hook needs to be memorable. If it’s much longer than 8 – 12 notes, it becomes too long to be easily remembered.
But it gets me thinking about what we mean by “the hook”. To paraphrase some, a song will fail without it. In a sense, that’s true, because if the hook is what is being primarily remembered, then a song needs it. Without something to remember, you’ve got nothing.
Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is a brilliant song, but does it have a “hook”? Not in the traditional sense, because there is no one part of that song that sticks in your mind any more than the others. There are repeating motivic fragments, but no recurring melodic or rhythmic idea that keeps getting presented in the same way. Yet the song succeeds wonderfully.
How about a couple of other samples: Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” uses a strong and obvious hook that is hard to forget. Sting’s “Fields of Gold“ incorporates a subtle descending figure that repeats throughout (“You’ll remember me when the west wind moves..”), but its effect is much more subtle than the typical hook. So why do some songs stick in our minds so well without an obvious hook? And given that some songs have very strong hooks while others have essentially none, it makes you wonder: Is a hook really necessary?
I don’t want to evade the question by saying that the question doesn’t really have a good answer. But I do want to answer it this way: if the underlying structure of your song is strong, the song will be memorable, and in that sense it is probably incorporating a hook of some sort. Successful songs are memorable songs. But adding a hook to a song that has structural problems will not solve the problems.
Think of a hook as something like a distinctive tie you might wear. That tie might really make the whole suit look amazing. But if the suit has split a seam, no tie, not matter how amazing it is, will solve the problem of the split seam. You need to fix the seam first.
One way to start the songwriting process is to write a short memorable hook and then build a song around it. It would not surprise me to know that Springsteen belted out that chorus “Born… in the U.S.A.!!” a number of times, and then built the song around it. But don’t assume that your song needs that strong obvious hook. It needs structure and contour. Those two items will give the listener something they’ll remember. And if the listener remembers your song, it’s got all the hook it needs.