Written by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Song hooks work well because they give us something short and memorable, and keep giving it to us over and over again. So why don’t we tire of something so repetitive? It’s because a hook by its nature is not profound; it’s short, catchy and repetitive, stimulating our brains to want something more substantial. The world’s successful songs all have something in common: repetition.
And the hook is the most obvious example of repetition that works, but you need to incorporate repeating elements in all the many aspects of songs.
Repeating elements are generally called motifs in the music world. A motif is a bit like a hook, in the sense that it’s main feature is its repetitive nature. But the difference between a hook and a motif is that a hook needs to be memorable, while a motif can be successful without you even knowing that it’s there, working away in the background.
There’s another major difference between a hook and a motif: a hook is usually repeated the same way each time, while a motif serves as material that is modified and developed throughout a song.
A rhythmic motif, for example, might be a short idea that gets presented mainly by the drums. The rhythm of the melody might then be constructed using ideas from that drum rhythm. Some of those melody rhythms might be elongated or shortened versions of the drum rhythm. That connection may not be obvious at all to the listener, but still forms a germane connection in the mind.
In your lyric, you create repetition every time you create a verse-chorus song, because those repeating words of the chorus pull the listener in each time they happen. Verses allow the audience to explore along with you, while choruses give them a familiar haven to return to.
Melodic motifs are vital in music. Without melodic repetition, an audience can feel lost in a sea of notes. To be sure that doesn’t happen, construct your verse melody to feature a certain interval or shape. “Hey Jude” uses a very subtle hooky motif, a descending shape on the title words. That descending figure returns throughout the song in different ways, on different words. Most listeners aren’t aware that it’s happening, but that returning descending melodic motif pulls the entire song together.
So if it feels like you’ve done everything right, but your latest song still feels like it’s missing the mark, take a look at the melody, rhythm and lyrics, and make sure that you’ve incorporated repeating elements in each. Repetition, as long as it’s not excessive, pulls listeners in and gives them something to hum.
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