Letting a Hook Disappear Boosts its Effectiveness

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When I hear a song I don’t like, more often than not it’s because I’m bored, not because there’s anything explicitly unlikable about the song. That’s a scary situation for songwriters, because it’s possible to do nothing “wrong”, and end up with a song that no one really cares about. For those songs, what’s missing is the hook – that little melodic/rhythmic shape that captivates the listener, and makes you want to hear it again.

For many songs, the hook is wrapped around the title (“Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” – Steam). For others, it’s a repetitious background thing that keeps repeating (“Layla” – Derek & the Dominoes). Or it’s a kind of sound effect or other distinctive kind of shot that keeps happening (“Baker Street” – Gerry Rafferty)

But in most cases (not all), your hook is going to help your song all the more if you allow it to disappear for a while from your song. A hook that appears and doesn’t go away can have the negative affect of tiring the listener’s brain.

In all the examples I’ve listed above, the hook appears in the song intro and in the chorus, and is allowed to step back during the verses.

Some songs, however, are built on top of a killer hook that is more or less relentless. Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is a great example of this. The song is written on top of a non-stop clavinet figure that hardly changes throughout the course of the song. It steps back for only one phrase per verse, but otherwise remains very obvious.

If you’re finding it hard to get your hook to work for you, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Make sure that your hook is short and catchy. Longer than two bars (8 beats) is tricky to make work, because short hooks are easier to remember.
  2. Try introducing your song with a catchy melodic hook with a strong and syncopated rhythm. Let the hook disappear for the verse, and bring it back in for the chorus.
  3. If your hook forms the backbone of the entire song, try using a bridge, and allow the hook to disappear during those 8 – 16 bars of music. Remember that a bridge needs to offer a different melody and chord progression, so this is a good opportunity to allow the hook to step back.
  4. If you’ve got the song written, but feel it’s missing something, consider taking a part of your melody and creating a hook from it. But also remember that hooks do not necessarily have to feature material from your song. The distinctive guitar hook in Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” features a descending shape that doesn’t appear anywhere else in the song.

To reiterate, hooks need to be easy to remember in order to be effective. That means hooks need to be short, catchy and singable. And giving a hook a moment to disappear will actually improve its effectiveness.

Remember, just because red might be your favourite colour doesn’t mean you should dress in red from head to toe.

-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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