A new way to develop a catchy song hook.
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A song hook is an earworm that grabs listener attention and keeps people coming back to hear it over and over again. When a hook is done well, it acts like a beacon. It identifies the song to listeners in one second or less, and sounds irresistibly catchy and musically exciting. It’s usually an important part of the formal design of a song.
As you know, a hook can form the basis of a chorus, where the words are fun and enticing to sing over and over again (“Hot Fun in the Summertime” – Sly Stone), but it can also be a melodic/rhythmic package that keeps reappearing throughout the song in either a vocal or instrumental form. Instrumental hooks that keep recurring throughout the length of a song are generally called riffs, like the guitar in “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey (John Lennon).
You could argue that almost all hooks, sung or otherwise, start their life as something worked out on an instrument. But you might want to give the following step-by-step a try. It shows you how to 1) create a melodic idea; 2) experiment with rhythms; 3) add chords; and 4) develop a catchy bit of lyric to pull it all together.
Gary’s eBook, “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“, shows you how to write songs by starting with developing a great hook. It’s part of the 10-eBook Deluxe Bundle. READ MORE
Start by playing a C chord on whichever chording instrument you like to use, then do the following:
- Hum a random note in your mid-range. It’s best, for the purposes of this activity, to try either a G or E.
- Experiment with rhythmic patterns on that one note. Tap your foot to establish a tempo, and then improvise random rhythms on the pitch you’ve chosen. Some of these can be very simple, such as simply singing the note over and over again in a pattern of long and short notes: (“Dooooo… doot doot DOOOOOOO… etc.”)
- Add a second and then third note to your improvisations. You’ll notice that as you add a second note, your instinct will likely be to move on quickly to adding a third note. Continue to improvise patterns, and repeat the ones you like. Remember, repetition is a crucial part of what entices listeners back to a musical idea.
- Add in some guitar chords. Since you chose a note from the C chord as your starting point, try strumming the C as your first chord, follow it with something else, and then return to the C chord again. Try different chords (see examples below), and notice that you’re melodic ideas and rhythms will change as you switch to different chords.
- Try applying lyrics to the melodic ideas you’ve created. At this step, you’ll find that your chosen rhythm will inform your word choices, but the other way around happens as well: you’ll choose words that require you to choose new rhythms.
At that point, as they say, you’re off to the races. You’ll notice that this is the kind of musical activity that’s easy to do with a songwriting partner: you singing the musical bits, and a partner playing and chords underneath.
Eventually, what you will be creating with this exercise is a short hook that can serve as the basis for your chorus. It can also provide motivic information when you then go to create verse that precedes it.
For some ideas of 2- or 3-chord patterns to use, try working with these. (For the 3-chord patterns, strum the first two chords for 2 beats each, then strum the third chord for 4 beats):
- C – Bb
- C – F
- C – F – G
- C – Dm – G
- C – Eb – Bb
- C – Eb – F
- C – Am – F
This is an activity that is strongly related to the melody-producing exercise I encouraged you to try a couple of weeks ago. It takes a kind of musical “courage”, because these exercises require us to step out of our comfort zone a bit, and create ideas without the go-to crutch of playing ideas first.
Hooks are a kind of important musical repetition that are mainstay of all music in the pop genres. Using the method described above comes with the hope that you’ll create something unique, since you likely haven’t created a hook this way before.
If you’d like a good explanation for why we like hearing things repeat in music, I might recommend the following BBC Radio 4 interview with Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis (author of “On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind,”) and Joe Bennett, Professor of Popular Music and Dean of School of Music & Performing Arts, Bath Spa University.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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