Defining a Hook

If you would ask five different songwriters to define a hook you would get at least ten different answers. But if you play a hook they could all identify it. So what’s my definition? I’m glad you asked.

At it’s most basic a hook is what you remember about a song. It’s what ‘hooks’ you into the song. A couple of famous hooks are ‘Baby Baby Don’t get Hooked on Me’ by Mac Davis and “Hooked on a Feeling” by B. J. Thomas. Most hooks are not quite so obvious. And hooks don’t have to be verbal; there are many examples of musical hooks. Most Led Zeppelin songs come to mind.

So on one level the hook is a catchy phrase, verbal or musical. And very often it is the title. It doesn’t have to be but it does make sense. One of the goals for a songwriter is to write songs that people remember. And since the title is how most songs are referred to, then it’s only logical the title should be the most memorable part of the song, i.e. the hook.

Hooks also have another important attribute; they are a summation of the song. You should be able to describe what your song is about in one line. In the song mentioned earlier – ‘Baby Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me’ can you guess what the song is about?

Hooks are repeated thru the song. There is a sound reason for this. One very effective technique to increase your memory is repetition. The more you hear something the more likely you will remember it. Of course there is always the danger your hook could become annoying or the object of ridicule. There are many examples of songs that are too ‘hooky’.

Which brings us to another attribute for hooks and the hardest to define. A hook should catch and hold the listeners attention. Songwriters use various methods to do that. Puns, place names, people’s names, phrase twists, etc. A good hook sounds familiar but isn’t.

Steps in writing a Hook
A disclaimer: the following is about writing a lyrical hook; I have another songwriting article about creating musical hooks.

Which comes first, the song or the hook? For me it is much easier to start with a hook. However, if you have a song you want to write a hook for you really don’t have much choice. So let’s look at that method first.

Start by analyzing your song. What is it about? Why did you write the song? Read thru your lyrics, you may already have your hook. If a line jumps out at you, read it out loud to others and watch their reactions. If a line from your song gets a positive response you have your hook and now it’s a matter of placing it in your song. Placing a hook in your song means your lyrical hook should fit with the words and the music. Use the words of the previous verses to lead the listener to the hook and use the music as punctuation.

But what if a single line doesn’t catch your attention, or better yet they all do. Take a look at the structure of your song, is it consistent, does it support the main theme of your lyric? Do you have a main theme? If the main theme of your song is, ‘a guy and a girl fall in love’ then you will probably have a hard time writing the hook. You need to take a detectives look at your song, ask yourself why, where, how or when did they fall in love. Perhaps her eyes remind him of the ocean. You can mine hooks out of that line all day:

Your eyes are like the Ocean
Lost in the ocean of your eyes
adrift in the ocean of your eyes
Ocean eyes

Writing original hooks
Coming up with a catch phrase out of thin air has to be tough right? Not really. You probably hear several every day. You just need to learn to listen to other folks. And listen to yourself too. Carry a small notebook (or pda) and jot down random quotes you hear. You may be surprised at how good many of them are.

But if your notepad is blank and so is your brain there is still hope. Of course I can’t guarantee a good hook, but you should be able to come up with something.

Step 1. Look around, what’s the first thing that catches your eye? For me it was the bookshelf.
Step 2. Write down everything you can think of that pertains to the object you just picked out. Describe its physical characteristics and any thoughts it may bring. My bookshelf:
is made of wood.
1. Rectangular in shape.
2. Brown in color.
3. (you can and probably should have more in your list)

So now we have a brown wood rectangle. Wood makes me think of the woods or a forest. If the wood or forest is brown it is probably fall. So there’s one hook – fall in the forest. You could turn it around also, a forest in the fall. That could work for a lot of songs. You have nice alliteration and fall can be taken several ways for variations in your song. But we’re not done yet.

Brown wood rectangle is kind of wordy but change rectangle to square and you have brown wood square. That might be a little tougher to write a song around but I think it can be done. Back to the rectangle, what are some rectangular things? How about a swimming pool? The brown wood becomes a brown log, a brown log in the swimming pool. Hmmm, I think that’s enough brainstorming for now.

Those may not be the best hooks ever; I just wanted to explain the process. It’s a structured free association. One thought leads to another until something sticks. Grab that hook and work it.

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