There’s no “formula” to write a great chorus or hook, but these techniques can spark ideas to write, rework, or critique your own songs.
How do you write a great chorus? You know, something that will really stick in your ear and never get old?
Of course, there’s that certain spark, that creative ingenuity that can hit us every now and then like a bolt of lightning. But what do you do when that creative spark just isn’t there? When you can’t seem to get your thoughts together into a solid hook?
To get your ideas flowing, it can help to take a step back and look at the tried and true music theory techniques that we see at work time after time in just about any new hit that graces the Billboard Hot 100.
These are by no means a “formula” to write a great chorus or hook, but there are techniques you can draw from to spark ideas, rework a chorus you feel might be falling a little flat, or to critique your own hooks.
A motif is just about as basic as you can get in the vast world of music theory, but the power cannot be overstated. Motifs are short musical ideas used to build phrases, melodies, riffs, grooves, and just about anything else foundational to a song. You can create melodic motifs, rhythmic motifs, and even harmonic motifs and string them together and manipulate them in many ways to create a strong, cohesive sound that stays fresh and interesting.
Motifs can be incredibly simple (and a lot of times it’s the simple ones that really stick in our heads). One of my all-time favorite motifs is the guitar part for “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5. It uses only one pitch and the same rhythm for the entire song, but it is one of the strongest guitar parts I’ve ever heard in a pop or dance tune. It creates an incredibly strong rhythmic foundation for just about everything else in the song.
Next time you’re working on a chorus, try to simplify it down and think about the motifs you’re using. Then, try modifying or making small changes to those motifs in a later chorus. This helps create a lot of interest and keeps the song from feeling monotonous while still maintaining that strong hook.
If you’re looking for another example of this, check out “Get Lucky.” Listen for small manipulations in the incredibly simple hook and notice how it keeps the song interesting. We take a deeper look at the music theory at play in “Get Lucky” and nine other hit songs in the Inside the Hits eBook. Download it for free.
Another really useful music theory concept that will help you write a great chorus is the concept of a sequence. Sequences are ways to take a particular motif or set of chords and transpose them up or down in a certain pattern.
Our ears naturally identify patterns in music (even if we don’t have any musical training), so this use of patterns creates a lot of expectation and anticipation as the listener’s ears predict what’s coming next. You can use sequences to create a strong expectation as you lead up to the hook, or you can build it up and thwart that expectation by breaking the pattern to add tension.
There are two main types of sequences: harmonic and motivic. Harmonic sequences are made up of a set of chords that follow a particular interval pattern. Motivic sequences are made up of a motif that is transposed and repeated using a specific interval pattern.
Two great examples of both of these concepts are Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”
“Canon in D” uses a harmonic sequence that follows an interval pattern: down by a 4th, up by a 2nd (D to A, B- to E-, etc.).
“Hips Don’t Lie” uses the same harmonic sequence but in a minor key. In both pieces of music, the motivic sequence follows the harmonic sequence. So every time the harmonic sequence repeats, so does the motif. You can hear this in the violin part in Pachelbel’s “Canon” and in the trumpet part in “Hips Don’t Lie.”
Take a listen for yourself and notice how your ear starts to predict where the music is going.
Take advantage of form and repetition
Once you have built a strong set of motifs and perhaps used harmonic or motivic sequences, the ways you use form and repetition can play a huge role as you write a great chorus.
First, if you want the chorus to stick, you need to make it the focus of your song: many pop songs get to the chorus in 60 seconds or less. It also helps a lot to write the hook (and sometimes the verses) over the same chords and groove as the chorus.
Second, use a song form that repeats the chorus a lot. Repetition (with small variations) is what will get that hook stuck in people’s heads. If you have too many sections other than the chorus, the power you want to the chorus to have may start to disappear.
A common structure for pop song form is:
Analyze the hits
It goes without saying that if you want to write hooks and choruses like the greats, you should study their work. Make a habit to try to really dissect the choruses from your favorite songs to understand what’s going on. What are the motifs at work? Do they use sequences? How much repetition is used? How are repetitions manipulated and varied to keep the listener interested?
Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets, and now, along with Daniel Roberts, he’s developed a new approach to reinvent the way music theory is taught. Hit Music Theory is the best and most practical way to learn music theory. Taught in context of modern hits, you learn how top songwriters are applying theory and how you can use it in your own music.
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