Are You Relying Too Heavily on the Hook?

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Joni Mitchell - HejiraIf all you do is listen to top 40 hits, you’re missing out on a ton of good music. More to the point, if you’re working at honing your songwriting craft, you really mustn’t limit yourself to just the music that makes the big time. You’ve got to branch out and expand your musical horizons. In short, you’ve got to get far more curious! Some people think of songs that don’t make the Billboard Hot 100 as failed music. That’s a completely false assumption, one that can severely limit your musical growth if you’re a serious songwriter.

There’s one particular feature of hit songs that separates them from most other songs, and it’s the preponderance of hooks and hook-like elements throughout the song. To be a hit, a song needs to grab immediate attention. To do this, writers of hit songs rely heavily on hooks.

The presence of a hook in a song is an issue quite apart from whether a song is “good” or not. Songs can be great for reasons that have nothing to do with the hook. Similarly, a song with a catchy hook should not be assumed to be a dumbed-down piece of fluff with nothing substantial to its claim.

Having said all this, most songs can and should make use of hooks and other types of musical motifs as a principle tool for musical development. A hook is not just a catchy bit. It can be an important structural element that just happens to be instantly appealing and memorable.

But the main difference between hits and (good) non-hits is that hits rely on the hook (and usually several) as a crucial structural component. Hooks sometimes have a way of discouraging the listener from digging deeper. And hit songs, which often use multiple hooks in combination, don’t often need listeners to dig deeper. And to be frank, you wouldn’t find much if you did.

Songs that use the hook in a much less obvious way are songs that prevail, that encourage analysis, and that inspire even nonmusical listeners to think, theorize and speculate. I love Joni Mitchell’s “A Strange Boy“, from her 1976 “Hejira” album as a model for just such a song. A fantastic lyric, curiously creative chord progression, and very tasty instrumentation that includes non-traditional guitar tuning. And it forces you to think.

So if you’re struggling with how to balance all of this- how to use the hook in your songwriting while keeping the quality of your writing high – consider the following tips:

  1. Try starting a song by working out melodic ideas, rather than by starting with a chord progression or rhythmic pattern. Chords and/or rhythms tend to lead to strong reliance on them as hooks, a reliance that doesn’t necessarily lead to musical development. Melodies are more likely to encourage you as a writer to develop motifs and ideas that relate, and lead eventually to music that stands up to deeper analysis.
  2. Adding a hook to a bad song gives you a bad song with a hook. In other words, don’t look to a hook as a way of improving a song. If you’ve written a song, and you find that it’s got nothing much to merit anyone listening to it, you likely have compositional problems that you need to fix, and simply adding a hook won’t do it.
  3. All songs need something “hookish” to attract listeners, but songs that will stand the test of time use hooks in subtle ways, and don’t tend to rely on them as critical structural components. So while it may be fun to crank out a hook-laden hit, see what you can do to also be working on songs that rely less on the hook, and more on other compositional elements. They’ll lead to music that has longer legs.


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