If no one element of your song is grabbing attention, a hook will be pretty much crucial.
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Songwriting is something that’s been going on for centuries in one form or another. I’m rather keen on comparing the way that composers from the Classical era wrote music with the way that modern songwriters tackle the art form. And if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I often mention the similarities between those two worlds. Except for the obvious difference in instrumentation and performance style, it’s amazing how much similarity there is between the melodies, chords and structure of Classical music, and those same elements in modern pop songs.
There is one aspect of musical composition, however, which gets discussed at great length in the writing of pop music, but almost never gets mentioned in the writing of Classical music: the hook.
Musicians will occasionally talk about the opening of Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 5, and say, “What a great hook!” But the term almost never gets used in the Classical world. My university degree is in music composition, mostly of the so-called “Classical” variety, but the word hook was never mentioned to me even once by my instructors.
So why is the concept of the hook so important in pop music, but barely mentioned in Classical music?
The main reason has to do with the length in time of a piece of music. Specifically, the shorter the composition, the more important the hook becomes. There’s an obvious reason for this: in lengthy musical works, composers have time to develop ideas and take the listener on an extended musical journey. Classical composers tend to write music that lasts considerably longer than the average pop song.
But in short musical works, like modern pop songs (4-5 minutes on average), there’s not much time to grab a listeners attention. After 4 minutes, a pop song is generally finishing. But in Beethoven’s 5th, a full performance of that first movement alone is usually close to 8 minutes. And the full symphony is a half-hour long composition.
A hook and a motif both achieve the same thing: they provide the glue that helps pull a piece together. But in Classical music, the composer puts more time in developing a motif than they do in creating a hook. A motif is an “idea” that can be developed and changed throughout the length of a composition. It’s a motif, for example, that allows you to hear that a rhythmic idea in a verse melody is similar to a backing rhythm in the keyboard part.
A hook is an idea that keeps returning in its original form. You want it to be short, catchy, and immediately recognizable. Adele’s “Rumour Has It” has a great title hook. It’s extremely simple, but that’s its strength.
The development of a motif can take time, and in Classical music, they have the time. Because motifs do their work in the background, quietly helping the listener make sense of a piece of music, it tends to give music more “depth”, more structural strength.
However, in pop songs, there’s so little time to “develop” ideas. Some of the best songs out there do, in fact, develop motifs, but even there, 4 minutes isn’t much time to make the best use of a motif. It’s why so many songwriting instructors talk about the importance of a hook, and don’t talk much about motif.
So if there is a good reason for creating a hook for your song, it’s because a hook doesn’t need time to develop. A good hook needs to be short and catchy, and grab attention right away. It’s a perfect component for a pop song.
It should be mentioned that not all pop songs have obvious hooks. Sometimes the beauty of a melody, the strength of a lyric, or the just the overall aura of a song is enough to build a strong audience base. But if no one song element is stepping forward to grab your audience, the hook is the tool that will do it.
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