Stevie Wonder

Creating Hooks in Pop Song Formats

For most songwriters, talking about “the hook” means talking about the chorus, at least the main part of the chorus melody that’s catchy and immediately identifiable. If someone asked you to sing the most identifiable part of Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla”, you’d start with the opening of the chorus (“Layla/ Got me on my knees…“). That’s the chorus hook, and it’s a good one.

What we often don’t consider is that most songs have several hooks, all layered together. They are not all equal in importance, but they all do pretty much the same job: they are something repetitious and catchy that serve to propel the song forward, inject musical energy, and make audiences want to keep coming back to the song.

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In Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”, that opening melodic cell (“Very superstitious/Writings on the wall…”) is a great hook. We hear that melodic idea over and over, and it locks in powerfully with the instrumental accompaniment.

But before we ever hear that hook, we hear that instrumental/intro hook that the clavinet, drums and bass provide. That is also repetitious and attractive.

We also get the horn riffs a little later on that repeat several times. Are those riffs hooks? In a way they are because they’re structured the same way — using repetition as a powerful organizing feature — and they’re very singable and memorable.

All the hooks we encounter in “Superstition” are not equal in power. Just as in most songs, the chorus melody draws more attention to itself than a verse melody, one hook typically waves the flag as being the most noticeable and memorable.

Some songs don’t have noticeable hooks, and yet they work just fine — they still pull in an audience and make them want to keep listening. Lennon & McCartney’s “Fool On the Hill” has repeating elements, but none of those melodic bits seem to rise to the level of calling them hooks.

But in those kinds of songs where a powerful hook doesn’t seem to be present, you’ll find that there’s something else that pulls people in. In “Fool On the Hill”, it’s that gradually rising melody that starts it all off, moving ever higher and making us wonder where it’s headed.

In Van Halen’s “Jump”, it’s the strong rhythmic synthesizer chord progression. In most songs, even if there isn’t something you identify as a “hook”, there’s always something that is catchy and repetitious.

If you find your own new song sounds a bit boring or lacking direction or anything that really pulls an audience in and makes them (or you!) want to keep listening, you need to listen closely to the finished product, and then make a list of the elements within your song that work to entice listeners.

What bits of your song are pleasantly repetitive and make people want to keep listening? If you can’t identify them, it is possible to add instrumental elements (like the clavinet intro of “Superstition”) that can fill the void.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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