Today’s world of pop music can be a very insular one, in the sense that many “discoveries” pop musicians make about what people like aren’t really new after all. I’ve posted an article from the New Yorker recently, called “The Sound Machine,” about how hits are written today. In that article, Jay Brown (president of Roc Nation) said:
“You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre-chorus, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge.” The reason, he explained, is that “people on average give a song seven seconds on the radio before they change the channel, and you got to hook them.”
I’d argue that that hasn’t really changed. Pop music has always been a hook-laden art form. And though we talk a lot about hooks as the main element of a catchy chorus, every section of a song needs something that keeps people listening, and that hasn’t changed.
A great example from classic rock can be found in Bill Wither’s “Lean On Me”, which contains several hooks, all layered, overlapping, and vying for attention. Give it a listen and see how many short, catchy “ideas” happen in this tune. From the opening parallel chord progression, to the hooky bass line in the bridge, to the masterful lyric that culminates in the pleading line, “Lean on me, when you’re not strong.”
The truth is that composers of music have always had the same issue to solve: how to get people’s attention from the very first note, and to keep them listening for the entire song. A song’s intro has got to be good, but once it starts, audiences are wanting to hear the verse.
And once the verse happens, they’re looking for the chorus. So even though typical pop songs are longer now than they were in the 50s and 60s, the time relationships haven’t changed all that much if at all. Song intros are still short – around 10 seconds or so (longer for ballads).
And most song choruses are happening before the 1-minute mark (again, later for ballads). And the longer you take to get to those key elements, the more danger there is that a listener is going to get distracted or bored.
If anything is different today with regard to pop songwriting, it’s the realization that it’s incredibly easy for a listener to click and hear something else if they’re not satisfied. In 1970, taking an album off the turntable and finding a different one to replace it took a while – 30 seconds to a minute. Today, as you listen/watch something online, YouTube is already suggesting a dozen or more other songs you might want to watch even before you’ve clicked to play the first one.
So while Jay Brown’s statement is true, that most songs need something hooky in every section, you might find that it’s always been the case. It’s almost a kind of songwriting principle: The shorter the musical composition, the more important the hook becomes.
And in the world of music, pop songs are some of the shortest examples we have of complete musical works. The composer of a symphony has up to an hour to offer a complete musical journey. That may seem daunting (and it is, of course), but you could also make the case for a 3-minute pop song as being just as daunting in its own way. Try telling a public speaker that they get 3 minutes instead of a half hour to tell a captivating tale. It’s not easy.
If there’s any directive in all of this for you as a songwriter, it’s this: Listen to your latest song, and for every moment along the way, try to identify what, if anything, is keeping your audience listening. That requires an ability to listen with complete objectivity, but it’s so important. What keeps someone listening to your music?
That may seem like a new requirement in today’s pop music world, but I would say that the job hasn’t really changed at all. It’s always been incumbent on songwriters and producers to keep people listening.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
If you’re a chords-first songwriter, Gary’s most recent eBook, “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“, is a manual that gives you a solid songwriting procedure that makes it easy.
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