A hook can make your song stand out from the crowd. Here are tips for designing an effective one.
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We speak of hooks as being a major component of pop music, but in fact a hook can be an important part of music from any genre. Every time you remember something about a piece of music that sounds iconic and immediately distinct, you’re probably noticing its hook.
So the first notes that the choir sings in Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” is a hook, and a very good one at that. Also, the main climactic melody of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, and also the opening piano figure of Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues“.
The hook is whatever you remember about a song when everything else has faded from memory. Not every song will have a strong and noticeable hook. In that sense, the entire song — the way it’s designed and the way all the components compliment each other — is sometimes enough, and a strong hook isn’t really necessary. The chorus of Lennon & McCartney’s “All You Need Is Love” is an obvious and strong hook, but you don’t hear anything quite so obvious anywhere in their song, “Good Night” from the White Album.
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To design a hook means 1) deciding where it’s going to go (i.e., what it’s going to do for your song), and then 2) actually creating it. Let’s start with the first part: deciding where it’s going to go.
There are three main purposes, and therefore three “locations”, you might say, for a song hook:
- The chorus. A chorus hook, like we find in “All You Need Is Love,” places the song title front and centre. Just the singing of the title alone is likely to bring most listeners back to it time and time again.
- The intro. An intro hook, like we find in Maroon 5’s “One More Night“, presents a short melodic/rhythmic idea that introduces the song. It is then brought back time and time again as the song proceeds, as background and as connectors between various sections of the song.
- The instrumental background. A hook that works as an important and noticeable instrumental layer, like Stevie Wonder’s clavinet opening of “Superstition“, first pulls the listener in, and then sits in the background (though very noticeably so) and continues to play an important role.
There are other kinds of hooks, which more resemble sound effects: shouted out words, like the funny-voice opening of “Wipe Out“, the vocalized song title in the instrumental hit from the late ’50s, “Tequila,” and so on.
Having a main hook, as all the songs listed above demonstrate, does not preclude the possibility that other hooks might also exist within the same song. The chorus of “Smoke on the Water“, for example, is a pretty solid hook on its own, even though we all know its stronger guitar intro hook.
When it comes to actually creating a hook, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
- Hooks often have a catchy melodic shape. “All You Need Is Love” is the exception here, which simply repeats the same note five times. Most of the time, a good hook will benefit from an enticing melodic shape, and the guitar opening of “Smoke on the Water” is a good example.
- Hooks often have a catchy rhythm. Hooks are strengthened by the presence of a syncopation or some other rhythmic device that plays in and around the basic beat. “Superstition” is a great example.
- Hooks are short. Most of the time, a hook needs to be taken in and absorbed by the listener as an entity that can be sung (or at least thought of) in one breath.
- Hooks are attractive. This is a quality that’s hard to define, and it goes without saying that making something attractive is the goal for writing anything within a song. But a hook is your make-or-break chance to grab the audience and excite them.
The best hooks sound like they’ve been created spontaneously, and they can do a lot to captivate your audience. A good hook can be compromised by bad song design, so don’t ever use a hook to hide a song with problems. If your verse seems weak and uninteresting, adding a strong chorus hook will help, but it’s best to dig into the problems your songs might have, and fix them. A song that’s already good makes a hook sound even better.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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