work the mic

Hooks: The Most Important Element of Songwriting


December 19th, 2014

I knew when I started Work the MIC that some readers would disagree with me on certain issues. I know my experiences differ from those of other musicians, and I also know my generally negative (I might say "realist") personality would color my opinions and statements in a way that might be uncomfortable for people who are more optimistic.

I am also aware that people who frequent the internet are passionate and can sometimes express their opinions and disagreements in an aggressive fashion.

So, considering all these factors, I wasn't surprised when a few readers expressed their aggressive disagreement with my statements on the importance of hooks in my post, "How to Write Lyrics: Level 2."

The idea of the "hook" seems to have acquired a bad reputation. The responses to that post illustrate that some people equate hooks with lowest common denominator "bubble gum" Pop music, being unoriginal, or "selling out." I found this interesting, because in the article, I pointed to Tom Petty and Rage Against the Machine songs as examples of hooks. I don't really think of these artists as being bubble gum-Pop-sellouts, but maybe that's just me.

The hook is one of the most important, if not the most important elements of any song.

I'd like to take a minute to break this concept down and try and restore a positive connotation to the idea of the hook. I'd argue that a hook is not something any good songwriter should run away from. It is not something you should be ashamed of. It does not invalidate your artistic credibility. It is one of the most important, if not the most important, elements of any song.

DEFINITION OF A HOOK

To be sure we're discussing the same thing, let me clarify my definition. I view a hook as nothing more than a memorable moment. Many people seem to think of it as a sort of combination of the catchy lyrical/melodic choruses of Pop songs. I would argue that every genre of music, every type of musician... everyone... uses hooks.

There are many different types of hook, so let's parse them out by looking at the various types packaged in one hit song. I would prefer to use many different songs, but for ease of reference, let's just keep this simple by looking at a breakdown of Metallica's "Enter Sandman:"

  • melodic hook: the melody when Hetfield sings "exit light, enter night." It's energetic, it's simple, it's sing-along-able. It's a moment when in live performances he can (and does) turn the mic to the audience, and they sing the part for him.
  • lyrical hook: "off to never never land." Simple and memorable, but also a phrase that the audience most likely already knows from the Peter Pan books and movies. Someone else has already done the work of creating a catchphrase, all Metallica had to do was quote it.
  • musical/instrumental hook: the guitar riff that precedes the verses. The song is instantly recognizable once that riff kicks in. It's not hard to play for most guitarists, nor is it musically complex. But dang is it catchy.
  • performance hook: the guitar solo. This passage is iconic in its own right. Kirk Hammett can sneak in some variations on the theme when he performs live, but the fundamental phrases of his solo are as integral to this song as any other element.

I've never sat in on a writing session with Metallica. To be honest I'm not that big a fan. However, I can recognize the instant memorability of this song, and the influence it's had on many songs and bands that followed.

This same breakdown could be applied to almost any piece of music from almost any mainstream genre. Pop/Dance/Country/Metal/House/Rap/Emo/Classical... doesn't matter. They all have many kinds of hooks.

Wait, did I just say Classical? You're damn right I did. Ever heard Beethoven's 5th Symphony? Those 4 thunderous notes at the beginning of the song are unforgettable. In fact, I don't even have to name the song. I could have just said "you know that piece that starts 'dun! dun! dun! DUN!'"?

PEOPLE LOOK FOR HOOKS

There are millions of musicians in the world, and probably billions of songs. Every day, everywhere we go, we encounter music. You walk through the mall and hear Muzak. You go to a car dealership, and hear a Classic Rock radio station. You walk through a city and hear a jazz trio providing background music at an upscale restaurant. You watch TV and hear commercial jingles. You tear up when you hear an Indie Rock acoustic song behind the dialogue of your favorite movies.

You hear all of this noise, but you only respond to some of it. What makes your song stand out from the billions of others? What's so great about you and your little piece of music? Why should anyone remember what you wrote? These are the questions that drive me to include hooks in my work.

There's a certain element of ego involved in being a musician whether you want to admit it or not. I don't want someone to walk past a speaker that's broadcasting my music and ignore it. In an ideal world, I want the song to stop people in their tracks. At the very least, I want them to be humming the melody mindlessly. I want them saying "huh, that's interesting" when they hear my chorus. Otherwise, what's the point of playing music for someone? If they don't remember what I've done, I've basically wasted my efforts.

If I've heard your band twice and can't remember any of your songs, there's something wrong with your songwriting.

Having been in a band for a number of years now, I've seen more than my fair share of live music performances from "local" bands. Every time a show is over, I test myself... how many of their songs can I remember? Almost always, the answer is none, very rarely it's one, and it has virtually never been two or more.

This problem is even more egregious for bands that I've seen more than once. If I've heard your band twice and can't remember any of your songs, there's something terribly amiss with your songwriting.

This goes beyond general audience. Whenever I've gotten feedback on my songs from someone who was considering my band for a show or an opportunity, one of the first things they comment on - without fail - is the hooks in my songs. Bar owners and showrunners want the music in their venue to be catchy so that customers want to stay and listen, and want to come back and hear it again. The catchiness of your song could very well put food on your table, or gas in your car.

YOU STILL HAVE A PROBLEM?

What's wrong with writing something that people want to listen to? I don't know about anyone else, but I love it when something I've written means something to another person. When I look out from a stage and see people humming my song, or mouthing my lyrics, that's just about the happiest I can get.

At the risk of sounding poetic or grandiose, there's something inexplicably powerful about creating an imaginary world (maybe experience is a better word) with lyrics and music and inviting other people to inhabit that world/experience with you.

Can you appreciate how mind-blowingly trippy that is? You made some marks on a piece of paper, howled some screeches, moans, and yells, flicked some nylon strings, and people stopped what they were doing so they could listen to what you're doing. Some people even memorized what you created and want you to do it again. If you're very lucky, some people will even pay you for the privilege.

How does that not drive you insane with glee?! How does that not make you want to write the best song you possibly can so you can repeat that experience?!

MUSIC IS SEX

A long time ago, I heard someone say that music is about sex. At the time I thought they were talking about how a lot of music is very obviously and literally about the act of sexual intercourse. But, as I've gotten older and experienced music from both sides of the stage, I've decided that there is a different meaning for that phrase.

You are attempting to seduce your audience with your song.

It means in crude terms that you are romancing your audience. You are attempting to seduce them with your song. Whoever listens could reject you and leave you feeling crappy about what you made. But, they could engage you. They could sing along with you, shout excitedly, or applaud you. They could buy your album and listen to it so much that they burn a hole through the CD. They could talk about you over coffee with their friends. They could tell you that your song changed their life.

There's a unity, a connection, a shared joy between the artist and audience that comes from a great performance. Once you experience that connection, it becomes addictive, and you want to recreate it as often as possible.

I don't know the science behind it, but I can tell you from personal experience that there is a biological reward for recognizing a song you love. You can hear it on live albums. When the band starts that riff from their hit song, and the crowd goes wild? That's almost involuntary.

The audience came to the show with the expectation and anticipation of hearing those notes and words, and when they get what they want, they will let you know. It's the same reaction some people have when opening presents on Christmas. They wanted this thing soooo bad, and when they finally get it, it's bliss, however brief.

Playing music no one remembers is a good way to play alone.

Playing music that no one can remember is a pretty good way to play music alone. There's a sexual equivalent for that as well, and if you're fine with being the only one giving yourself a hand, then by all means enjoy yourself.

HOW DO I MAKE A HOOK?

In my mind, the most important element of writing a hook is the testing phase, which I described in my first article on songwriting. Write whatever you want. Once you think it's ready, play it for someone, then leave the person alone for a while. After a healthy period of time has elapsed, call on them to sing the song, or repeat the lyrical phrase to you. If they can't remember any part of it, you don't have a hook. If they can remember some piece of it, then you're on your way.

DON'T FORGET

I hope you've come to the point where you can appreciate the work that goes into creating an unforgettable hook, and the value that will serve as a reward when you've found the right notes and lyrics. I hope you go back to your songs and figure out if they stand out from a crowd. If they don't, what are you going to do to fix that?

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