For most songwriters, defining a hook is simple: it’s that catchy bit that makes up the main part of the chorus. It usually comes back over and over because that’s what choruses do — they reappear after every verse, and then again after the bridge.
A hook is good if it has a melodic shape that’s easy to remember and fun to sing. It usually needs to be supported by a short, tonally strong chord progression. If you think of some of the most memorable, famous ones, like perhaps “Born In the U.S.A.” (Springsteen) and “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees), you’ll know the power of a good hook.
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A motif has some similarities to a hook, especially with regard to the fact that it repeats throughout a song. But while a hook sounds pretty much the same each time you hear it, a motif might actually change over the length of a song.
Motifs are subtle; they do their work mainly in the background, in the sense that you usually only notice the effect of a good motif. If you want a good example of the subtlety I’m talking about, listen to Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” (Bruno Mars, Philip Lawrence, Ari Levine, K’naan).
The song starts with the chorus, and pay close attention to the way the melody line of the chorus unfolds: several notes all of the same pitch (“Today I don’t feel…”) followed by several melody notes that move gradually downward (“like doing anything…”). It’s all glued together by a strong sense of 8th-note pulsing over a reggae beat.
That idea repeats for the next line. Then for contrast, we get a new idea: a melody that moves up and down mainly in the opposite direction (“Don’t feel like pickin’ up my phone…”). But you still get the sense that there’s a similarity in the way that line works. In other words, though it contrasts with the first line, we still get the idea that “it belongs to the song.” But in a sense, it’s different enough that we can think of it as a separate motif:
That sense of belonging is what motifs can do. We still get the strong impression of that pulsing 8th-note feel through both motifs, even though the melody of the second motif uses a lot of syncopation.
When the song moves on to the verse, each line starts with several notes all of the same pitch (“I’m gonna kick my feet up…”) — that’s Motif #1. When we hear “Nobody’s gonna tell me I can’t“, that’s Motif # 2.
For the rest of the song, each melodic line comes from either one of those two motifs. When we hear “Yes I said it, I said it…”, that’s a kind of melding together of both motifs, and that’s when we get the real power of motifs: mixing, matching, changing, morphing ideas.
The end result is that all the bits of melody that happen within the song sound like they’re related to each other. In that way, motifs act like a kind of musical glue.
I’ve mentioned this idea of motif before in previous blog posts. The verse of The Beatle’s “Penny Lane” features a skipping kind of rhythm using mainly downward-moving melodic cells (“Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs…“). Then for the chorus, we get that very beginning fragment, the tiny bit from the first 3 notes: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes…“.
Using Motifs in Your Own Songwriting
Most of the time good songwriters are using this kind of motivic development without even realizing it; there’s a measure of instinct at play here. But it’s good to be aware of how motifs work, because it is something you can apply after the fact.
Occasionally I get emails from songwriters who tell me that their melodies just don’t seem to work well together, and I can almost guarantee that the problem will relate to some kind of misuse of (or absense of) motivic development.
It’s ideal if there is a strong sense of connection between each line of your verse and chorus melody. That connection most often comes from similar rhythms and melodic shapes, and we call that similarity a motif.
So put the magnifying glass on your melodies and do a bit of analysis. You want some kind of connection between most of the lines within each section. Another good song to study as a model for motif is Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya Salmanzadeh, Ali Payami, Tove Nilsson).
If motifs aren’t something you’ve even noticed before, it’s because motifs don’t wave a big flag like hooks do. Motifs do most of their work in the background, and as I say, you are usually more aware of the effect of motifs than you are with their actual presence.
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