Hit Songs Are Mostly About the Hook

How much material does a hit song need? Not a lot. Rihanna’s no. 1 hit “We Found Love” is mostly hook, and little else.


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Rihanna - We Found LoveWhen you listen to songs on the Billboard Hot 100, you can start to wonder why you’re working so hard to get that perfect blend of lyric, melody, harmony and form. Most hits, with a few exceptions, support the theory that if you want to quickly build an audience base, it’s really all about the hook and little else. Rihanna’s first hit off her latest album “Talk That Talk” is comprised of a repeating melodic fragment that makes up the verse, the chorus, even the short “bridge” material before the final choruses. So welcome to the world of hit song writing.

A hit song will succeed if there’s something short and memorable that grabs the listener. It’s not a criticism to note that if you’re trying to write a song with hit potential, the hook you create is usually going to be far more important than any other aspect.

I recently wrote about Coldplay’s song “Paradise”, and mentioned that simplicity was the key to its success. In a similar way, but to an even greater extent, “We Found Love” is minimalist in its ability to create a 3-and-a-half minute song from two short musical fragments. The first one provides much of the material for the song’s verse, chorus and “bridge”:

Rihanna "We Found Love" Main Theme

…with a small fragment that serves as pre-chorus material:

Rihanna "We Found Love" Pre-chorus

And that’s about it. And just to reiterate here, the sparsity of material is not a criticism, but merely an observation about hit songs: It’s (usually) all about the hook. Cleverness and profundity is always welcome in hit songwriting, but in addition to, not in place of, something catchy and repetitive.

It is possible to do both, of course. There are songs that have intricate formal design, killer lyrics, strong motivic development, etc. And happen to have enough “hookishness” that can satisfy listeners who simply want something to sing along to. You won’t often find them on the Billboard Hot 100, however.

So if you’re looking to write something that has hit potential, “We Found Love” is probably your model. But if you aspire to greater heights, and hope to create music that others want to dissect and analyze, music that will stand up to the test of time, there is better music to be getting into.

The list of great songwriters could be huge, and it of course depends on your favourite genre. In the pop music world, you’ll find these writers can teach much simply by example: Imogen Heap (Ellipse), Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago), and Arcade Fire (The Suburbs). Personal taste aside, this is music that pop songwriters can really learn from.

Please feel free to comment and add your own list below of current songwriters that are motivating you to keep writing.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Repeated rhythms within a rhytmic idea and then the repetion of those rhytmic ideas works great for memorablitily in my opinion

    Max Martin seems to like doing this at times.

    Try clapping the melody in the chorus to Britney Spear’s “Keep On Dancing Till The world Ends” It is the same rhytmic idea repeated 8 times ( The notes change when the rytmic idea is repeated – so what is done with the notes is alo very important but I think the base of the memorablitly starts with the rhtymic repitition)

    Clap Katy Perry’s verse melody and chorus melody and it is chalk full of this type of rythmic repition

    (now whether you think this is good songwriting is a different story haha, but now try clapping the rhytmic ideas in the first minute of beethoven’s fifths symphony – first movement it is also chalk full of repeated rhymths within a rhytmic idea and then those ideas are repeated 2 or 3 trimes or more but with note changes of course and obviously very complex harmonic structure and so on.

    This is by no means how music should be written but it is a style that can be utilized especially for those who are having writers block. Rather than looking for emoitonal inspiration look to some mathematical inspiration

    • Hi Brian – Many thanks for your great comment on this. That rhythmic element is a crucial part of most hooks, and I usually make mention of it when I talk about hooks (here, for example). As you mention, rhythm plays a big part in locking it into our brain and making it easy to recall.

      Thanks again,

  2. I fell in and out of love with this song over the course of a weekend. I echo your comments regarding the shelf life of a song such as this, but for an artist such as Rihanna its gets the job done. I also admire the skills of the songwriter that can so succintly pull a listener in with such a tune. I had a similar feeling for her prior single, only girl in the world but that one stayed on my ipod a bit longer. I really enjoy your blog Gary and look forward to future posts.


    • Thanks for the comment, Paul, and very pleased you enjoy the blog. These kinds of songs have a purpose, and shelf life is, for them, only a minor consideration.

      Thanks again,

    • Hi Max:

      Actually, the point I was making is that while some songwriters aim specifically to write hit songs (and so their music is hook-heavy), other songwriters are better for showing strong structure and overall design. Bon Iver’s music, and the other groups/writers I mentioned, are more in that category. So my point is that their music is excellent, but not hook-heavy. It’s why in my opinion people will be studying the music of Bon Iver a hundred years from now, but probably not many writers you find in the Billboard Hot 100.

      Thanks for writing,

  3. I have to wonder if the process by which songs like “We Found Love” is responsible for its nature. Constructed in the studio, built around a groove, with lyrics almost an afterthought (or so it feels)–it feels very different from someone starting from an idea or a phrase and fleshing it out into a song. I’m sure I’m seeing a contrast where there’s more of a continuum, but it feels like a lot of pop “songwriting” is very different from what I think of as a traditional process. (I’m not saying worse, just different–I can’t imagine anything I do that could ever lead to a song like Rihanna’s.)

    • Yes, I know what you mean. Very much driven by formula, where it is, as you say, constructed in the studio. The kind of songwriting I really like is where it’s apparent that the writer needs to express a thought or convey an image, and all the musical elements work together to create that image. Hook-heavy writing has a way of dumbing music down.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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