Having a song stuck in your head can be one of the best and worst things in the world.
And it never seems to be the whole song either! It’s always that one line that you find yourself coming back to over and over.
It can drive you crazy (or others crazy, depending on how you feel about public singing).
However, as a songwriter, hearing others talk about a piece of mine being stuck in their heads is one of the best compliments I can get.
So, what’s the secret? How can songwriters craft music that is so irresistibly catchy you just can’t stop thinking about it?
Well, while there are no guarantees on how to make the world’s next catchiest tune, one of my favorite places to start is with a hook.
A hook is a repeating musical motif, whether that’s lyrically, melodically, or rhythmically, that stands out as the focal point of the song.
It’s one of my favorite devices to employ when I’m trying to create a cohesive song that’s fun and memorable.
Below, we’ll dive into everything you need to know about hooks and how you can layer them into your next song.
What Makes a Hook?
Making a hook isn’t the most straightforward task in the world. After all, what’s catchy to one person might not be catchy to another.
However, there are a few guidelines I like to give myself when writing a hook which may be able to help you as well.
First, I try to start with some kind of melody or riff that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while.
If you’re anything like me, you have some way to jot musical ideas down whenever they come to you, whether that’s in a notebook, on your computer, or even in the voice memos on your phone.
Now, you probably have quite a few ideas that you’ve stored away over the years, but there will always be a few that just keep coming back to you.
I prefer to start with those ideas and try to identify why I can’t get them out of my head.
Usually, it’s because the melody or progression is so interesting and catchy to me that I just can’t forget it.
From there, I start to lay the base of my hook.
Even if it’s not found within the depths of your voice memos, trying to write a simple, singable tune on your instrument is always a great starting place for your hook.
If your song has lyrics (and you want your hook to be lyrical), you can start adding some words to your hook.
When writing a solid lyrical hook, I try to keep the idea simple and immediately understandable.
Now, it doesn’t have to be so simple it loses its poetic value, but just simple enough that your audience will pick up on it quickly.
Just like a good chorus or refrain, a hook should boil your song’s lyrical content down to a clear, single idea.
Not only will it prove to be an earworm for your audience, but it’ll also drive home the main point of your song and make it memorable.
In terms of tone, I like my hooks to stand out in some way, so creating a clear contrast between them and the verses in the song is never a bad idea.
Usually, a change in chords will do the trick, but even a shift in rhythm or melody can be enough to signal to the audience that the hook of the song is happening.
Contrast between the hook and the other musical elements of your tune will help build a more dynamic and interesting song (and one that your audience will want to listen to again).
Finally, and this might just be the most important part of the hook, make it repetitive.
It might sound like a bit of a cheap shot, but if you want that line to be stuck in people’s heads, they’re going to need to hear it more than once.
Feel free to be pretty liberal with that repetition as well. After all, the “na na na” section of “Hey Jude” goes on for four minutes.
Hook vs. Chorus: Understanding the Difference
At this point in the article, you might be wondering why you would spend any time worrying about a hook in your music when you could just write a chorus.
It’s an important question to ask! After all, a hook and a chorus have quite a few similarities.
They’re both repeating sections of a song that feature melodic and harmonic qualities distinct from the rest of the tune.
They both even serve the same purpose narratively for many songs.
So, why a hook?
Well, while hooks and choruses do both share many qualities, they also differ in some fundamental ways.
The main difference between the two is primarily the flexibility in definition that a hook has.
A hook can be a line from your chorus, but it could also be the first line of your song, the drum breakdown in the middle, the melody of the pre-chorus, or any other number of elements.
That’s why songwriters will often talk about “writing to the hook.”
Your hook is your song’s strongest, most recognizable element.
A chorus, on the other hand, is a lot more rigid in definition, as it represents a structural element of the song.
So, when asking yourself whether or not a hook is worth it, take a look at your song as a whole.
What’s the most memorable part of the song? What’s getting stuck in your head as you work on it?
If you’re coming up blank, it might be a good idea to analyze the individual parts of your song and see if you can sneak a catchy, unforgettable hook in there.
Types of Hooks
You’ve probably come to realize that memorable hooks come in many different shapes and sizes.
While there’s tons of variety to this handy little musical device, we’ll cover the three most commonly found hooks out there: melodic, lyrical, and rhythmic.
Melodic hooks are any kind of hook that has a melodic line or tune that creates that catchy, earworm effect we’re going after.
It’s usually a short simple phrase, and this kind of hook even has a bit of history to it.
A song’s motif is one of the most fundamental elements of Western composition in the past 500 years, and the motif functions very similar to how modern hooks do.
In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we see a repeating four note motif that has become incredibly iconic to almost all music lovers.
This is a prime example of a melodic hook. Beethoven got it right with a catchy, narratively interesting hook, and it only took him four notes!
Perhaps a more modern example of a hook can be found with our next type, lyrical hooks.
Lyrical hooks work similarly to melodic hooks, but the emphasis here is on the words of the song.
Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” is a great example. While the melody itself is classic, the words themselves are catchy and recognizable to nearly everyone.
It also helps that the hook of the song points to the title as well, further cementing itself in the ears of listeners everywhere.
Rhythmic hooks are a slightly less common but still powerful form of hook.
One of the best examples out there is the “stomp, stomp, clap” from Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.
Its structure is incredibly simple, but it works well within the context of the song. It’s invigorating, interesting, and unbelievably catchy.
If you’re looking to place a rhythmic hook within your next song, “We Will Rock You” is a masterclass.
Using Multiple Hooks
A single song can have multiple kinds of hooks as well! In fact, many do.
“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepson is a pinnacle of catchy songs. Between the repeating violin riffs and the chorus’ “Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me maybe,” it’s a song that will stick in your head after just the first listen.
Another great example is Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” From the “Ohs” and the “Ra ah ahs,” this song proves great lyrical hooks don’t even require actual words.
Other examples of songs with memorable hooks
The opening clavinet riff from “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.
The intro guitar in “Starting Over” by Chris Stapleton.
“Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1999” by Prince.
Utilize hooks to craft stronger songs
Hooks are one of the best ways to guarantee a catchy tune, but they can also be one of the hardest to craft.
As I talked about earlier, the hook is the strongest, and most memorable part of your song. While that might sound like an admirable goal to aim for, it’s not always the easiest to pull off.
When in doubt, always prioritize simplicity with your hook.
Some of the most iconic guitar lines, lyrics, and drum beats that stick in people’s heads tend to be just a few notes or words.
Nearly all of the examples we discussed above follow that same principle, so if you’re hitting your head against a wall, start there.
Experimentation is always a great idea as well. Try playing a new instrument or listening to music from a genre outside of your own to gather some inspiration.
Sometimes the simplicity of a beginner’s mind is enough to jumpstart your hook writing journey.
Finally, bounce your hook off of others before putting it out.
If it’s truly catchy, your friends and family will pick up on it. They might even be humming your hook for a few days after you play it for them!
However, if your hook isn’t landing quite as you planned, it might be a good idea to take a look at what’s working and what isn’t.
Hooks are incredible parts of a song, but they’re not the full picture.
If you want more help with writing your song, check out my complete guide on the subject. I cover everything from the verses to the last note so you can go into your next song ready to write a hit.