Many songwriters don’t understand song hooks. There are arguments between songwriters about the importance of melody versus lyrics, even to the extent that some songwriters claim that lyrics are not important at all. There are music producers that aren’t aware that production hooks exist, even though they accidentally create them!
Hooks come in all shapes and forms. The more you understand what a song hook is and how a song hook works, the more easily the hooks can be used within future compositions and recordings.
What Is A Song Hook?
A song hook is basically something that grabs you in a way that makes you want more. There are good hooks, bad hooks, weak hooks and strong hooks. Some songs have no hooks! An example of a good, strong hook is something that gets your attention, something that is memorable and something that makes you want more.
Hooks can compliment each other. The sum of parts being less than the whole. Song hooks can also compete with each other and so dilute their strength.
Many songwriters have a vague understanding that based on a life experience of liking and not liking, but there are formulae that govern hooks (although some are more like loose guidelines). "Vague" in this contexts mean that they don't have a formal understanding of hooks. They have not been taught about them, and perhaps have not thought about them overly much.
Genre has a large effect on the relative importance of lyrics, but the same is true for all aspects of a song. All have to be of a good standard and hooks have to deliver on some level.
What you are looking for is something that supports or compliments the emotional mood the song sets, be that happy, sad, joyous or mournful.
Many songwriters and bands think of hooks as being the main melody. the truth is that listeners factor in all kinds of things when listening to a song and each of these attributes and associations can be crafted and honed by the songwriter, the producer and even the performer. Each of them can have a hook.
Lots Of Song Hook Types
Lyrics hooks can be thought of on a multitude of levels, roughly divided into:
- Story / meaning
- Deeper meaning
- Evocation of emotion
Each of these aspects of lyrics has the possibility of being a hook. Each hook has the chance to grab a listener.
the same is true of melodic hooks:
- Evocation of emotion
- Range / tone
or a specific singer and the hooks created by the character and nuance of their voice:
- Evocation of emotion
Not a complete list by far (even for those listed) but you get the idea. All have their possible hooks.
The same is true for every instrument, for musical arrangement and music production.
That's a lot of potential hooks.
Make The Most Of Your Song Hooks
Hooks are in part genre dependent. So is the emphasis that is placed upon different song hooks. It is not so much that an individual type of hook stops working altogether, more that according to genre the emphasis that appears to be placed on a particular hook in that context is less. When writing songs it's the songwriter's job to create the appropriate hooks, in the appropriate place. Some hooks work out better when used only once, however most song hooks benefit from multiple repetition. Think of chorus hooks. Melodies and key lyrical phrases are repeated to draw attention to and reinforce the strength of the hook. In simple terms, repetition helps the hook to be remembered.
A completed song is likely to contain many types of hooks. Ideally you want those song hooks to combine in a way that they compliment each other, strengthening the link between the song and the listener.
Songs are sometimes decribed as "hooky" or "catchy". In the pop market hooky tends to equate to instantly catchy, whereas in other genres there is more of a leaning toward more subtle, longer acting hooks. Changing tastes or further understanding and connection can account for a listener starting to like songs that previously they didn't get. Sometime the hooks themselves are designed to be slower acting, but they can be just as powerful as the more instantly catchy song hooks.
The more instantly catchy songs also tend to age faster. Their popularity declines faster. The opposite is true of songs that take a while for the listener to get in to, which tends to keep their popularity longer lasting. There is absolutely nothing stopping songwriters and arrangers from using a mix of hooks to achieve a song with more balance to it, giving a more instant like-ability and at the same time giving the song a longer lasting popularity.
In lyrical terms, more instantly catchy hooks tend to use common, fashionable phrases that reflect very common current ideas and aspirations. Slower acting hooks tend to be hooks with multiple levels of meaning, where the levels of meaning are revealed by the listener considering the lyrics and observing deeper meanings. More abstract song hooks fit into this category.
For example, a line from David Bowie's "Life On Mars":
""It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow""
It might not seem like a great hook, but it is.
- It is memorable.
- It provides something you think about and chew over the meaning, yet at the same time it is an abstract and silly image.
- It is a strong hook yet not the main hook of the song (arguably).
- It isn't repeated and it is in the middle of the verse.
A hook can be pushed on the user by repetition, by placement or both, as in choruses, but abstract song hooks often don't work as well like this because the act of pushing them cheapens them. In keeping this hook buried and not repeating it David Bowie leaves the listener with a long, slow burning idea that could be chewed over and smirked at over a long time. Had it been a main line in the chorus it's appeal would have dissipated far more quickly. Luckily he was full of ideas so the song has hooks of most kinds.
In looking at many new songs across a broader range of genres, there is undoubtedly a trend towards shorter term, more instantly acting song hooks, the more instantly appealing. Many songwriters on songwriting forums regularly state that lyrics are not important and point to this hit or that hit as an example, but they are simply wrong.
The lyrics, either by intention or accident, in those hits were simply appropriate to the market they were selling to. This is also true where lyricists sometimes believe that the lyrics are the be all and end all. Breaking news, they are not.
The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of The Parts
Songs are a unique combination of music and words. Their strength and appeal lies completely in the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." At least a song has the potential to be greater than the sum of the parts! Combine the wrong parts in the wrong way and exactly the opposite can be true. This is why songwriting is a craft. The writer needs to craft the song, and that requires the songwriter to understand the components of a song and how they best work together, and to understand the trade offs between different characteristics and components.
Take Control Of Your Song Hooks!
Due diligence. The songwriter's craft needs a diligent songwriter. The next time you are writing a song, take some time to consider and review the hooks in your songs. Don't rely on accidents happening. Be in control.
The first step is to become aware of song hooks. Take a look at a range of hit songs from across the years. Look for the hooks. Learn how they have been used to attract attention and to keep it, and how they can create in the listener an appetite for that song. Review your own material and observe where you have used song hooks and where you have abused them. Observation and analysis is a big part of more rapid improvement in songwriting skills.
You will only understand song hooks and how they work together if you take some time to observe and understand them. If you do take the time to learn about song hooks, you can place them with intention, understanding their effect. This makes for much more effective songwriting and songs that, for the right reasons, are more memorable, more attention grabbing, that make the listeners want more.
Sounds simple huh?
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