The Pop Song and the Hook: Creating Memorable Music

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Paul Simon: You Can Call Me AlI am not one of those who believes that every song must have a strong hook. Some songs are like fine wine: their appeal grows over time, and in those songs the hook is not clear or distinct. But it’s probably true that songs that make a big splash are the ones that have identifiable elements that are quite “hooky.” A hook is simply any element, or combination of elements, that is short, memorable, and easy to sing. A hook usually combines a melodic shape with a catchy rhythmic figure. You know a hook is working if you can’t stop humming it.

You could argue that any song that you listen to more than once must have something about it that has hooked you, or else you wouldn’t return to it. And that’s a good point. Normally, we identify something as a hook if it seems to stand out on its own somehow. The opening of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is one that really does what hooks are supposed to do: it immediately identifies the song, users a catchy, syncopated rhythm, and is singable by pretty much anybody.

So too is the chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” (Springsteen), and the “oh, oh, oh” of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”

Strong hooks, strangely enough, can have a dangerous side. Because hooks have a way of making their presence known, they have a tendency to rise above other song elements. So even if a song has a very strong lyric, you’ll find that audiences remember the hook easier than they remember the lyric, regardless of how strong the lyric is.

Songs that come and go with little or no notice from the listening public probably means that there weren’t any hook-like elements that demanded attention. The job of a songwriter is to make people want to listen, and the standard way of doing it is to incorporate a hook.

So here are some tips and advice to remember regarding song hooks:

  1. A hook needs to be short and memorable. If no one is remembering it long after the song is done, it’s not a hook.
  2. The easiest hooks to write are in the chorus, and use the song title.
  3. Songs that start their life as a hook, to which the rest of the song gets added, run the risk of being bad songs with a hook. If you develop a catchy hook, don’t neglect the importance of a strong verse and chorus melody, with a good lyric. (It’s amazing how many songwriters’ brains get shut off once they’ve come up with a catchy hook!)
  4. Hooks can be used in combination. Some songs will incorporate many hooks: the chorus, that particular syncopated drum lick that keeps repeating, a guitar lick, and so on. Hit songs from Billboard Hot 100 tend to be very hooky, with many hooks used in the same song. Keep in mind that even though these songs get an immediate and positive response from listeners, they don’t fare as well over time as songs that are more introspective musical journeys.
  5. Adding a hook to an already created song can save it. Here’s something to try: If your latest song sounds fine, but just isn’t getting any attention from anyone, try developing a hooky intro that demands attention. That intro should use a catchy rhythm and/or melodic shape that can be woven into the main song, or even just the chorus. Then use that intro as a connector between the end of the chorus and the next verse. (Give Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” a listen for how this might sound.)


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