Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
You know a good hook in a song when you hear it. It grabs you and doesn’t let go. A great hook is instantly memorable, making you want to hear the rest of the song. You’ll even find yourself getting excited each time it comes around, and no one will blame you for wanting to sing along.
Take “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C&C Music Factory, for example. The producers knew they had a great hook on their hands thanks to an exuberant vocal performance by Martha Wash (who the producers did not credit, much to their shame), so they started the song with it, and a classic dance track was born.
But what exactly is a hook, and how do you go about writing one? These questions aren’t easy to answer, but we’ll listen to some of the greatest hooks in popular music history and offer some guidance so you can write your own hook.
What is a hook in a song?
“Hook” is often used synonymously with “chorus” (especially in hip-hop). And that makes sense as the chorus is often the most memorable part of a song. But a hook doesn’t have to be the chorus or the bridge in a song. It can be the underlying riff that holds the whole song together. A hook can even be as simple as a shouted phrase (as we heard in “Gonna Make You Sweat”).
In short, a hook is the catchiest, most memorable, unique, and exciting part of the song. A hook “makes” a song. You can write a perfectly good song without a hook, but if you want your song to become an earworm, you’ll have to learn how to write a great hook.
8 different types of hooks
Let’s listen to some classic hooks to see how flexible the term can be.
1. Hook as chorus
In hip-hop, the term hook almost always means the chorus. And a classic example of this is “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. Jay-Z’s rapping is cool and all, but it’s Alicia Keys’ soaring, old-school, almost Sinatra-esque chorus — I mean, hook — that makes this song a classic. The vocal melody is definitely an earworm.
2. Hook as riff
A riff — also known as an ostinato in classical music — is a repeated melody that drives a song forward. Rock arguably wouldn’t be rock if it weren’t for its fist-pumping hooky riffs. When we think of a memorable melody, a few songs come to mind:
- “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes
- “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
- “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns and Roses
- “Smoke On the Water” by Deep Purple
But it’s hard to beat “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. It’s just five notes, but the moment you hear it, you’ll never forget it.
A longer riff, but one that is no less catchy, holds the entire “Bitter Sweet Symphony” together for The Verve.
3. The instrumental hook
In Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street,” the hook is clearly that legendary sax lick. Unlike a traditional riff, this hook functions as an instrumental chorus. “Baker Street” is a fantastic song on every level, but that sax hook makes the song truly unforgettable.
4. The call-and-response hook
It’s tempting to call the hooks in this category riffs, too, but I think they function differently. Take “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies. That instrumental hook is so intertwined with the vocals in the chorus, it really functions as a call-and-response as opposed to a riff, which should be able to stand on its own.
5. The chord progression hook
Typically, hooks are melodic, but they don’t have to be. Sometimes a chord progression is so catchy and inviting it functions as a hook all by itself. Take these classics from The Romantics, Weezer, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
6. The drum hook
Most hooks involve playing or singing notes, but sometimes, all you need is a drum to instantly hook your listeners. And in Queen’s case, with “We Will Rock You,” they didn’t even need a drum. This instantly unforgettable classic beat is created by all four band members stomping and clapping.
7. The spoken word hook
Another example of a hook with no melody, this kind of hook is obviously most common in hip-hop. Sometimes you have a phrase that’s so catchy it can’t help but grab listeners and not let them go. A great example is “Scenario” by A Tribe Called Quest.
Here we go, yo, here we go, yo
So what, so what, so what’s the scenario?
8. The arrangement hook
Some songs have all the elements of greatness: a catchy melody, great lyrics, excellent performance, etc.; but what truly makes the songs memorable can be found in the arrangement. Take the simple-but-unforgettable “hoo-hoos” in The Rolling Stones’ epic “Sympathy For the Devil.”
How to write a catchy hook
Let’s see if we can learn some lessons from the greatest hooks to help you throughout your songwriting journey.
1. Keep it simple
Most of the examples below are short and sweet, ranging from two notes (“Sympathy For the Devil”) to twelve notes (“Bitter Sweet Symphony”), with most of our examples averaging between five to seven notes. (Even the longer example of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is really made up of three-note motifs.) So, keep it short. Remember, you’re not writing a melody. You’re writing a hook.
2. If you’re using lyrics, keep those simple, too
This isn’t where you want to show off your SAT score. Use simple, straightforward phrases that clearly state your song’s intentions. Everybody dance now, indeed.
3. Use the pentatonic scale
Ideally, you want people singing along with your hook. And the easiest scale for the average person to sing is the five-note scale that forms the basis of so much of popular music. In fact, it’s so easy to sing, and so universally known, Bobby McFerrin made a classic video showcasing its power.
I’m not saying you can’t use other scales, but the pentatonic scale is a great place to start. A quick dip into music theory: there are two pentatonic scales I would consider, major and minor. The C major pentatonic scale uses these notes: C, D, E, G, A. If you are using a guitar to write and want something bluesy, try the E minor pentatonic scale: E, G, A, B, D.
4. Use syncopation and/or triplets
So many of the greatest hooks feature melodies that are out of sync with the beat. They either use syncopation or triplets. Syncopation is when you sing or play notes off the beat. If you’re counting in 4/4 time (1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and), try playing notes on the “and.” A triplet is when you play or sing three notes in the time of two notes. (A good example of triplet use is when John Lennon sings the phrase “Strawberry Fields Forever.”)
Many of the greatest hooks combine notes that are on the beat with notes that are off. “Seven Nation Army” features on-the-beat notes, syncopation, and triplets (and four of the riff’s five notes are from the E minor pentatonic scale).
How to use your hook
OK, so now you’ve got a great hook that you love. What now? Here are a few tips for strategic the deployment of your hook.
1. Start with your hook
In almost every example above, the hook is the first thing you hear. In this day and age, you don’t have time to develop motifs and themes. Hit ‘em with your hook right off the bat. It’s what’s going to make people take notice of your song.
2. Repeat the hook
A great hook is memorable, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it in your song structure to ensure it gets stuck in your listeners’ minds.
3. But not too much
Unless your hook is a riff or a drum beat that underlies the entire song, you don’t want your audience to get sick of hearing it. Repeat it enough for it to catch hold, but leave them wanting more.
Why stop at one hook?
We’ve been talking as though songs only have one hook, but often the biggest songs have more than one. You could say that keyboard riff in “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” is just as hooky as Martha Wash’s vocals.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey has two great hooks. That opening piano riff is instantly catchy and memorable (and just listen to the crowd go nuts in this live performance), but so is the chorus.
Final steps to finishing your song
Once your hook-laden song is ready for the world, why not contact Disc Makers? We can help you with audio mastering, so your song sounds bigger and better than you ever thought possible. And when that’s done, we can also help with CD design and disc duplication.