Stevie Wonder

Songwriting 101: Hooking a Listener

While it’s most certainly true that a good song is a musical journey, it needs to be more than a mere journey if you hope that people will return to your song to listen again. For most songs in the pop genres which are typically under four minutes in length these days, the hook plays a crucial role in bringing listeners back.

Hooks & RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

A hook is a short musical idea, usually repetitious in nature, that has a few characteristics that make it so attractive in a song:

  1. It’s usually harmonized with some fairly simple (but tonally strong) chords.
  2. It uses an interesting rhythm.
  3. The melody is mainly stepwise, but also including a melodic leap.

A song can actually have several hooks, sometimes even overlapping each other. But there’s usually one basic hook that stands out above the other ones, and that one is the chorus hook. A chorus is typically built entirely on a hook, and in fact some songwriters will use the term “chorus” and “hook” interchangeably.

But in addition to a chorus hook, a song’s intro can present a catchy hook that goes away and then continually reappears throughout a song. Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” is a model of this kind of hook.

Sometimes that intro serves as a kind of instrumental hook that sits under most of the rest of the song. A great example of this is Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car“, and its very attractive acoustic guitar opening which keeps going, supporting the melody as it goes. Also, Van Halen’s “Jump“.

I like to think of a good hook as that one thing that stays in your mind long after the rest of the song has faded from memory. You’ll probably notice that strong hooks seem to be a feature of faster tempo songs. Slower ballads seem to do well even if there is no noticeable hook. (The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, you could argue, doesn’t really use a hook, until the “na-na-nas” at the very end.)

And one other thing to consider about the hook is that it won’t save a bad song. If you’ve written a song that seems to have various weaknesses or problems, those problems won’t go away simply because you’ve written a catchy hook.

The importance of writing a good hook for a song is why many songwriters like to start the process by coming up with a good title first. That’s because a song’s title often figures prominently in its chorus hook. Get a good, catchy title, and you’ve got a basis for the rhythm and possibly even the melody of that hook.

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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