Hooks and Motifs: Keeping Listeners Listening

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Guitar and MusicWhat keeps a person listening to a song over and over again? Though you might describe it as undefinable charm, we do know there are some features of musical composition that make it more likely that people will keep coming back to that song repeatedly. The contrast principle, as one example, seems to reel listeners in by presenting opposite characteristics within the same song. A case in point might be a verse with rising melodic shapes, contrasted with descending shapes in the chorus. Hooks and motifs, however, have the greatest chance of pulling listeners in, and keep them coming back to a song.

A hook is generally seen as a short, catchy musical feature that repeats throughout a song in a somewhat unchanged way.

A motif is similar to a hook, but with an important difference: a motif is a short, distinctive musical element that usually changes and develops throughout a song. A motif serves as an “idea-generator”: a rhythmic idea from the drums might get transferred to the rhythm guitar. Then that idea might transfer in a modified, but still related, way to another instrument.

A shorthand way of describing the important difference between a hook and a motif might be to say that a hook does its important work in the foreground, while a motif does its work in the background.

A hook, in order to be given that name, needs to be immediately recognizable and hummable, or it isn’t a hook. A motif, on the contrary, may not necessarily be catchy or memorable, but serves as a structure that appears in different forms throughout the song.

A good example of a motif might be the kind of tile you choose for your kitchen decor. That tile might be blue, with a cream-coloured pattern. You then might choose the cream colour as your wall colour, and you might also choose to carry the blue over to your choice of bathroom wall.

In that analogy, visitors to your house may not be aware of the blue tile at all. They may just have a sense that everything in your house just seems to “work together well”, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t know exactly why. That’s how a motif works.

In that sense, a motif is every bit as important as a hook. While hooks are great ways to grab a listener’s attention, a motif can actually have a longer-lasting effect through its subtle way of strengthening song structure.

The Beatles were great users of motivic development in their songwriting, and didn’t really use standard hooks much. George Harrison’s song, “Something“, from Abbey Road, is a good example of a song that takes an initial idea (that opening guitar figure) and uses it to help develop melodies later on (for example, the “You’re asking me will my love grow…” section).

The beauty of a motif is that you can keep discovering permutations and modifications of a motif that you hadn’t noticed before, and thereby discover why a song seems to have charm. A hook’s effect is more immediate, more up front.

So how do you create and use motifs? If you’ve created a melody for your song, look for ways to take its important or distinctive rhythmic or melodic ideas, and transfer them into your instrumentation, or into other sections of your song.

If you’ve got a verse and chorus, but want to develop a bridge, take some of your melody’s unique characteristics and incorporate them into a new melody.

By doing so, you help to create the glue that binds your song together, and give it a special sense of connectivity throughout. That kind of motivic use goes a long, long way to keeping listeners listening.


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