Songwriting Part 20 - The Elusive But Deadly Hook

by SaskMusic

July 31, 2009 in Songwriting & Copyright

In the winter of 1997, before either of us had gained any sort of reputation in the music biz, I had the chance to spend some time with Toby Penner, the prolific and (as the ladies inform me) stunningly handsome lead singer/songwriter from the Alberta pop-trio Jake. Between rehearsals for the youth-event house band we were putting together, the rest of the musicians and I would gather around Toby to bask in his glory and shoot the breeze.

One specific conversation that I recall was about songwriting. To my horror, Toby had the audacity to claim that Hanson (of "Mmmbop", and "Whereís the Love?" fame) wrote great songs and furthermore, we could all learn something about songwriting from these pre-pubescent lollipop-rockstars.

What? Me? Learn about songwriting from little kids? I was 19 years old and convinced that the mere presence of a Hanson CD in my collection would result in a swift beating from even the most docile of my friends. I told him so.

Sensing my shock, Toby elaborated as to how the un-coolest band on earth was indeed a paragon of songwriting savvy that had been victimized by age prejudice. He concluded his oration by looking me in the eye and saying, "Ben, it doesnít matter how old you are, good songs are all about hooks. You know that."

Conceding, I nodded my agreement (hoping to give the impression that I knew what he was talking about), but I left the conversation completely baffled. Hooks? I didnít even know what a hook was. I thought good songs were all about magic.

When I look back now, I think that we were both right, and hopefully in the next few minutes weíll be able to reveal the craft behind a few of these magiciansí art. Weíll talk about how to capture a listener without their knowledge by using one of my favourite tools: the elusive but deadly hook.

Simply put, a hook is any recurring theme placed within a song to reinforce its structure and make it more memorable to the listener.

Why should I bother?

The term "hook" carries the inference that when we perform a song we are, in a sense, fishing. But instead of a tasty meal as a reward, weíre aiming for the attention of our listeners. Weíve got to somehow offer the listener something thatís engaging, memorable, and evocative without actually using the phrases "Please, feel like I do." or "Buy my album." More importantly we want to say something that people can hold on to without exceeding our 3.5 minute time limit. Hooks help us do this by making a song identifiable.

It is my opinion that a song should be "hooked" at as many levels as possible, combining instrumental and vocal patterns to create as many memorable dimensions as are appropriate for the piece. The key is in the appropriateness, which is entirely up to us as songwriters/arrangers. Ultimately, we must decide what is right for the song. If we choose wisely, our songs are strong and memorable. If we choose poorly, our songs are impenetrable and forgettable. Our fate is in our hands.

The main reason that I am a proponent of hooking for depth instead of simple repetition is that we want to avoid "one dimensional" hooks, which end up being the mind-numbing songs on the radio. Usually they consist of a vocal hook repeated over and over again. These songs are a crime against our craft, and should be dealt with as such: with manacles and rusty cagesÖwell maybe not, but at the very least we need to realize that hooks should come in many different forms whether lyric, melodic, rhythmic, chordal, or combinations thereof. Variety and depth ensure that our songs donít get tired after the first few listens.

It is my goal to highlight some of the tools that we have at our disposal, and from my limited experience offer tips on how to use them. Letís start with the red-headed stepchildren of hooks, and move toward those that you know about and either love or loathe.

A Drummers Dream (No, the G-Rated One...)

One of the most underused tools in the writerís toolbox is the instrumental rhythmic hook. In fact, you may wonder how or why you would even consider using this tool until you see how effective it can be at strengthening a song.

For example, think of the Queen song "We Will Rock You". What comes to mind? Immediately I think of the old familiar STOMP-STOMP-CLAP Iíve heard so many times at sporting events. Now think of the song without the rhythm backing it up, or (even worse) with a dance pulse beat or a swing jazz pattern. Ouch.

Try to think of a few more examples. U2's "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" has that odd single stroke hi-hat & snare roll that makes the song instantly identifiable. The Foo Fighters' single "Learn to Fly" has a distinctive tambourine hit on every 4+ beat that identifies it. We could go on and on from Dream Theater to Radiohead to Third Eye Blind to Pink Floyd to Vivaldi. Some are obvious; some are more subtle. The important thing is that we are conscious of this tool and its potential value to us as writers.

Rhythmic instrumental hooks are hard to write because so many of the good ones have been used already, but the dividends are worthwhile; your song becomes much more memorable. Try some ideas out. The worst that could happen is that your song stays as good as it ever was.

Chordal Hooks

Most people donít think of the chords they use as hooking tools, and with the way we use them today they usually arenít. But in the early days of rock and roll The Kingsmen kicked off "Louie, Louie" with that old familiar I - IV - V - IV progression, and we all still recognize it today.

Today's chordal hooks are usually heard in conjunction with the very percussive rhythmic hooks used by heavier bands like POD ("Alive") and Limp Bizkit ("Rollin"). Though we also hear them in other genres of music from all eras; from Ben Harperís "Steal My Kisses" to Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones" and LFO's "Summer Girls".

Here are a few exercises for you to try:

1) Rhythmically double a portion of your primary lyric hook with the appropriate chord progression. It will alter the feel of the song, and force the lyrics to share the spotlight with the chords (not always the best choice, but usually worth a try).
2) Add colour to the chords in one of your progressions with accidentals (try 2nds, 6ths, 7ths or combinations) and use the progression as a hook. (See Ben Harperís "Steal My Kisses" - he adds 6ths on the IV and V chords.)
3) Try an old reggae trick; use your chords as punctuation only on off-beats.

You get the idea; letís move on to non-lyric vocal hooks.

Scat 'Til You Drop

Non-lyric vocal hooks, much more common in early R&B, blues and gospel music, are fantastic tools to use when the right song comes along. Originally called scatting, these ad lib vocal noises were used to mimic the sounds of instruments that were not present at a performance or rehearsal. Zappatappa tap bee bop benk doo dah dee dat ditty na na nah yah and my personal favorite zwazoo zah were among the noises onomatopoeically representing, among other things, trumpet, drums, pizzicato bass, solo guitar and clarinet.

These tools have been incorporated in pop music by the likes of Simon and Garfunkle ("Mrs. Robinson"), The Beatles ("Hey Jude"), Louis Armstrong ("Gone Fishin'"), and of course Hanson ("Mmmbop").

Scat hooks have also been very successfully incorporated into the background vocals of songs by artists such as Sarah McLachlan, Sweetsalt (ahem), Third Eye Blind, etc.

Here are some exercises to try:

1) Try scatting along with your own music. If all else fails, itís fun to do, and a good vocal warm-up. Be prepared for funny looks from passers by.
2) After youíre comfortable freestyle scatting to your music, try to narrow your focus so that you create a 1 - 2 bar repetitive pattern that works with an entire section of your song.
3) Get someone to sing with you so that you can hear the lead vocals and the scat at the same time. Then scat the melody, and freestyle with the lyrics. Try lots of things. Youíll never know what kinds of gems youíll accidentally uncover.

N.B.: If for no other purpose, scatting is a great tool for quickly communicating ideas in rehearsals, while writing or while in recording sessions. Learn to use it. Youíll be glad you did.

Melody Without Voices

The last of the non-lyric hook tools we will discuss is that of the melodic instrumental hook. This type of hook can act as structural support in a chorus/refrain section by reinforcing your primary hook. It can also be used within a verse section to add intensity or interest to a dynamically sparse area of music.

As a very common type of hook, Iím sure you could come up with a dozen examples of songs containing these, but here are a few that come to mind for me: The Policeís "Every Breath You Take" with that walking suspended 2nd guitar riff. Sugar Rayís "Fly" with the pseudo-flamenco acoustic guitar descending in thirds. The Jackson Five with "Blame it on the Boogie" and that kickiní little bass-line groove. AC/DC and the opening riff from "Hells Bells" (complete with devil gong, of course.)

The best way to write these is to try. Find an idea you like and refine it until it works very naturally. If done right, these melodic hooks should smooth your transitions between song sections by adding or removing something that signals to the listener that a transition has taken place.

Beating the Audience over the Head as Gently as Possible

Finally we arrive at the workhorse of the commercial music world, our primary memory tool: the lyric hook. But instead of just describing and giving examples of how to cram our songs full of them, Iím also going to offer a few suggestions on subtlety and variety in their use. Our goal in this area should be hook saturation without the listener realizing the degree to which you hold their attention. My friend Dan says itís like being slowly beaten to death with a pool noodle. I would have to agree.

I should point out that I am a firm believer in hook repetitionÖwhen appropriate. Some songs feel natural with the primary hook appearing three times in a chorus/refrain, while some feel natural with only one. Itís all a matter of taste, and focus.

We need to ask. "What are our goals for this song?" If radio is one of them, a repetitive primary hook will help. If lyric depth is the focus, and accessibility is secondary, we can more gently hook the song and use the vacant space for elaboration of the songís ideas, but hook it we must, or no one will give it a second listen.

Here are some suggestions to increase the strength of your primary hooks:

1) A strong hook sums up the main idea of the song, leaving the listener with a memorable morsel. Narrow the topic of your song so that it can be summed up in the hook. Otherwise youíre not memorable, you stay on the shelf, and off the radio.
2) A good hook should be reinforced by the title of the song. If at all possible, name your songs after their respective hook lines. It doesnít sound very artistic, I know, but weíre in the music business, and that means accessibility, so swallow your pride, and make your songs easy to find.
3) Support your primary hook with secondary and tertiary ones, but watch out for needless clutter. Whether they be guitar riffs, or backing vocals, make sure the other hooks point to your focus: your primary hook.
4) Whenever appropriate, position primary hooks in the strongest measure of the strongest section(s) of your song (i.e. first bar of the chorus, over a tonic chord).
5) Think carefully about the chords you use under your primary hook. Does your hook resolve the tension in the song? If so, your chord should probably be a strong one (I, IV or V). Is your hook part of the tension? If so, your chord should probably be a colour chord (II, I/III, III, IV, or non-diatonic such as a II maj or flat VII maj).
6) Be extremely careful when you write the rhythmic and melodic structure that will actually carry your lyric hook. This is the focal point. Your hook line should be singable, and intelligible to the average listener. Letís face it, we all sit in our cars and sing along. What fun would it be if we couldn't?

Test the strength of your hooks by playing your song for someone who has never heard it before. Donít give them a lyric sheet. When youíre done, they should be able to tell you what they think the song is about, what it is called, and be able to hum the hook line.

Here are some suggestions to lessen the perceived impact of your hooks:

1) Use your primary hook to start or end your verse, or pre-chorus. ("Long Year" by Sweetsalt)
Verse 1 It's been a long year
Since I've seen these colors in the trees, my dear
It's been a long time
Such a long time here babe

Refrain Maybe this year things will change
Somehow every year's the same

2) Repeat your primary hook, but use different words. The idea will be reinforced without having to hook quite as deeply. Notice the use of "fields of barley" as reinforcement for the "fields of gold" hook-line. ("Fields of Gold" by Sting)
Verse 1 You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in fields of gold

Verse 2 So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

3) Eliminate the chorus section altogether by cutting it down to a simple hook line at the end of each verse section. (Let me warn you though, this makes the bridge section crucial.) (See "Fields of Gold" by Sting again.)

4) Always orchestrate the tension and release in your songs. Donít be too quick with tonic chords/primary hooks, and conversely donít deny resolution for too long or your listener will lose interest.

As a last piece of advice, be shameless when you write and ruthless when you edit. Never ever mix the two. When weíre too critical in the middle of creating, we stifle that creativity. Just as often weíre too sentimental when we edit, and we stop short of refining a song to its full potential. Be honest with yourself both about the weaknesses, and more importantly, the strengths of your work. Believe in the value of your craft, and your passion alone will sell your ideas to the listener.

Okay, I'll admit it. Toby was right, I've become a Hanson fan. I bought their first album, I like their second CD, and I'll probably buy their next one. The fact is that before those kids could shave they understood everything I'm still learning about hooks at 23 , and that ís probably why they're working on their 3rd major label studio release, and why Toby and the boys in Jake just released their 2nd album, sure to be a hit of course. Me? Well, I'm still learning how to write songs, one Hanson record at a time. Meanwhile, Sweetsalt is trying to work some magic the old fashioned way; connecting with one audience at a time.

Thanks for reading and best of luck as you write.

Benjamin Reynolds is currently working as a singer/songwriter in Nashville, Tennesse. (2009)

By Benjamin Reynolds for SaskMusic. Originally published June 2002.

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