Most works of art, whether you’re talking about songwriting, poetry, the painting of a landscape, or anything else, really, are comprised of some element that acts as a focus, and then many surrounding, supporting elements.
For example, you might photograph a landscape that features a beautiful pine tree as the main element — the object that immediately draws everyone’s attention. In addition to that pine tree, you like the ocean in the background, the rocky hills surrounding the tree, and the general colour scheme, all working to support and partner with that pine tree.
The Point of Focus
In songwriting, the point of focus may not be so obvious. It’s important that all elements of a song — the melodies, lyrics, chords, instrumentation, and so on — partner together, and support each other. But as to which one of those elements stands up and acts as the main point of focus… well, that may not be immediately evident.
That’s OK, of course. Sometimes a song is about the partnership, and not about that one noticeable component. But if there was ever something that does stand up and demand attention, it’s the hook.
A hook waves a flag that says, “notice ME.” In that sense, it is the pine tree in the landscape. By itself, however, that pine tree will possibly look unremarkable. It’s all of the supporting cast of ocean, rocks and beautiful sky that take the pine tree to the level of beauty we perceive when we look at the photograph.
Similarly, a hook, if you simply sing its melody, may seem unremarkable. But the supporting cast of chords and rhythms all make that melodic bit the exciting, song-selling element that we hear.
The Supporting Elements
If you choose to paint a landscape rather than photograph it, you need to make decisions about what the supporting elements are going to be, probably before you even put the brush to the canvas. You might sketch in a rough representation of the tree as a kind of placeholder, while you get the background working. Then you go to work on that tree.
In songwriting, all of the elements that support the catchy melodic bit will usually get worked on simultaneously: it’s common for a hook to “appear” in the songwriter’s mind as a unit, with the chords, rhythms and melody all appearing at roughly the same time.
The exciting thing about a hook is that it can often make much of the rest of the song easier to write. Once you’ve got that catchy hook working, you’ll often find that ideas for a verse will start to emerge. Just as the painter who sketches in the tree starts to imagine a stream, perhaps a cluster of daisies nearby, or an old shed in the tree’s shadow, a songwriter can usually imagine other interesting supporting elements for the hook.
It’s the reason that starting with a hook can make a lot of sense. Once you’ve got the flag-waving “look at me” part working, you have a goal toward which you can work.
Starting a Song By Working Out the Hook
So here’s a quick run-down of how a hook can be an important starting point for your songwriting process:
- Get a chorus hook working. It doesn’t need to be in its final version. You may even find yourself changing the hook after you’ve composed it, but at least get something short working that sounds catchy and easy to sing.
- Think of a catchy line of lyric that works well, something that could act as a song title. Keep honing and fixing your hook.
- Think of some verse ideas. Since the hook will usually sit higher in pitch than a verse melody, keep your verse ideas lower in pitch. You may need to raise the basic pitch level of your hook if necessary.
- Think about the chords that connect your verse to the chorus. A chorus hook will be all the more successful if the chord at the end of the verse connects effectively to the chorus. For the Lennon & McCartney hit “She Loves You“, the verse ends on a dominant chord D7, and the start of the famous hook “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” moves to Em – a really nice so-called deceptive cadence.
There’s a nice sense of musical momentum that happens when you write a good hook. It stimulates your imagination and makes the songwriting process a lot easier. That’s not to say that it’s always trouble-free, but starting your process with the writing of a hook can make the final picture much easier to imagine.
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