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Fishing for Song Hooks

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Read Time: 6 min

The Anatomy of a Hook

The word hook is a common one in the language of the music community, especially amongst songwriters. The only thing you might hear more often is, Sorry, we aren't signing writers at this time. Or the ever popular, I'm just not hearing your song. (Turn it up, buddy.)

Hooks are best understood as the part that you remember after the last note of the song is silenced. It gets stuck in your gray matter and you find yourself humming it much later, sometimes annoyingly so. 

You may not even like the hook but you cannot deny its contagion. Advertisers often use nothing but hook in trying to sell products. This is what makes jingle writing such a difficult undertaking.

Hook Types

The Form Hook

This sort of hook exists in a fairly predictable location within the form of the song, usually the chorus. It might be the first line. It might be the last line. It tends to be the title and it may simply be repeated over and over again in a chorus.  

The combination of the music and the lyric gives this kind of hook tremendous staying power.  In a song that contains verses and a bridge, it may occur at the end of each verse. I call this a tag hook

Less often it appears in the bridge and this is where the line between choruses and bridges becomes shadowy. As in Lionel's Richie's hit Still, it can be a single lovely word.

The Musical Hook

A musical or instrumental hook may or may not be accompanied by a vocal, but it is not lyric-driven. It often takes the form of a repeating riff in the intro of a song that is immediately recognisable. 

If you can't identify The Beatles' Day Tripper by the opening guitar licks, you've been living under a rock. It's undeniable catchiness is why the song still receives so much airplay to this day. 

That is not to say that it is the only hook in the song, but it is the strongest one. The power of such a hook can not be under-estimated. No matter how strong a lyrical hook might be, I would encourage a writer to add a strong musical hook as well. 

I would be the first to admit that demo session players often come up with hooks that end up being copied by the producer when and if the song is cut. These talented players get no writing credit either. 

Being a highly mediocre guitar-player, I often hummed my musical hook ideas to my session players. I am sure it was annoying but it was the best I could do at the time. On countless other occasions, they delivered something magical without my interference. 

The only negative can be that because these players play so often, you may end up with a riff that they used yesterday on another's writer's songs. I have even heard intros from my demos on mastered hits. I am certain it is an unintentional occurrence.

Plot-Based Hooks

Certain, very memorable, songs depend on an unforgettable story line rather than a lyrical or instrumental hook. The payoff of the story is so strong and effective that the focus is not on any certain phrase or lick. 

Songs with a twist  or a gimmick often fall into this category, as well. George Strait's hit The Chair by Dean Dillon is a prime example of this kind of writing.

Production Hooks

Production hooks are not commonly used by songwriters, like me, unless they happen in the studio. These days, though, so many writers are technically-equipped and skilled to create and alter the sounds of vocals and instrumentals with all sort of effects that enhance an already good song with additional ear candy. 

The words in a certain song section may be indiscernible and the melody may be lackluster, but an interesting effect running through it can become a hook unto itself.

Baiting Hooks With Emotion

Connecting with the listener's senses is a surefire way to create a great hook. To take the hookiest location in a song, run a great melody under it and warble I am going to eat some cereal over the top would be a waste. There is no emotional connection.  

An emotional hook such as Killing Me Softly in the Roberta Flack smash resonated loud and clear. It hit on a feeling of pain and regret that anybody could identify with.  

Anger, suspicion, jealousy are negative emotions that can run as a powerful and hooky thread throughout a song. Walkin' On Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves projected pure joy and exuberance throughout the song. 

Learning to Fish

Study the Hits

Consider where you will find better lessons in hook-creating than by studying what has already proven effective. 

Don some headphones and head out for a long walk on a regular basis. Listen to songs old and new that have really gotten stuck in your psyche. Identify each kind of hook and note what factors came together to give them maximum effectiveness. 

Craft Your Own

Create exercises for yourself in which you tackle a kind of hook with which you are less comfortable. Layer hooks. There isn't a song out there with a great chorus hook that could not be even greater with a killer instrumental hook. If you can't play your musical lead, la-la it like I did. Somebody else will be able to render it immortal.

A phrase like I love you was etched into musical history when Olivia Newton John sang I Honestly Love You. The addition of a single word to a common phrase can work wonders. 

An unusual adjective can create magic too. I loved this techique employed in Michaelangelo Sky recorded by Deana Carter. Country music used to be synonymous with plays on words. Countless hooks were created by substituting a word in a common phrase with a sound-alike or rhyming word. The cleverness was endless for while there. 

A lot of humorous songs have hook lines that end with a word other than the expected one. It’s fun stuff to play with.

The Hook Book

I would rather lose my wallet than my hook book. No lie. Snatches of hooky melodies or words can make their presence known at some very inopportune times. Committing them to memory seldom works. 

Get yourself some manner of pocket-sized hook book and keep it with you at all times. Set it on your nightstand when you go to bed. I use my iPhone now. It gives me the luxury of recording lick ideas and melodic hooks as well as jotting down verbal ideas. Years ago I used to numerically notate instrumental ideas with stress marks on the downbeats. Much easier now.

The next time you are bored and stuck in stand-still traffic or waiting for a horrific storm to pass at an airport, instead of wasting time sharing photos of your dog on Facebook, go fishing for hooks. I don't recommend it for insomnia though. If I even chance a glance in that direction, I will be up long past the wee hours. Like all of songwriting, it is a muscle. The more you flex it, the better it works.

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