Songwriting: The Many Ways to Hook A Listener

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Bruce Springsteen - Tenth Avenue Freeze-OutA “hook” is any musical aspect that is repetitive, catchy and short. In reality, most songs contain many elements that are “hooky.” They range from the obvious (a repetitious song title) to the subtle (a background guitar riff.) Without any kind of repetitive feature in music, listeners would get bored very quickly. A hook is a way for songwriters to grab people’s attention and keep them, well, hooked. Because most songs are very short musical journeys – 3 to 4 minutes – hooks are a crucial aspect of generating interest.

But as I’ve said, there are many elements within a song that are hooky, and it’s not crucial for a hook to be out front and obvious. I love pointing to the music of The Beatles (particularly their later offerings) as great examples of songs that didn’t make use of obvious hooks. But woven into all their music were expertly crafted motifs and repetitive elements that solidified each song’s structure.

When we talk about hooks, we’re often talking about something very obvious, something that repeats, and something that makes us hum or sing it all day long. Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” is a typical example. In the pop music world, the title hook is common.

So if that’s the obvious way to incorporate a hook (and keeping in mind that a hook needs to reel listeners in), what are some of the more subtle ways? Here are four suggestions:

  1. The Instrumental-Effect Hook. In the background, create a repetitive instrumental riff or effect that’s short and catchy. Example: The guitar “shot” during the sax solo in Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street”.
  2. The Song-Intro Hook. This is something that may not even include lyrics or much instrumentation. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” drum intro is a great example. You just need to hear that drum intro start, and it’s hard to continue whatever it was you were doing. You must listen! Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” is another great hook-intro.
  3. Background Instrumental “Effect” Hook. This is less obvious because of the way it works from the background, not out front as you usually expect in hooks. It’s usually a combination of something melodic and rhythmic. There are several of these kinds of “mini-hooks” used throughout Genesis’ song, “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”. You could also consider the basic background guitar/bass/keyboard work in “Roundabout” by Yes as an example of this.
  4. Shouted or Spoken Word Hook. If we think of a hook as something that immediately makes you think of that particular song, there are lots of examples of this kind of hook. “Tequila” by The Champs, and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris are examples.


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