Ever wondered what it is about a hook that makes it a hit? Why do some songs seem to stick with you long after you’ve heard them and keep looping in your ears even years later? Are there certain elements about them that you can learn and begin to incorporate into your songs?
Absolutely! In fact, hit songwriters have understood for years that there are at least five essential elements every hit song hook has in common, and they are memorability, emotion, universality, imagery, and simplicity.
While some songwriters seem to go about the process aimlessly just hoping to “luck out” on a great song, the pros know that hit songwriting is a deliberate process. It looks a bit like this:
GREAT IDEA > GREAT HOOK > GREAT LYRIC > GREAT MELODY > GREAT SONG
Okay, yes, I know… that looks easy enough, right? Oddly, many songwriters aren’t scoping for the great ideas to start with, so they never get to the great hook part, much less the rest of the process. They just want to sit down at the keys or grab their guitar and emote, thinking their “feelings” will somehow produce a great song. It just doesn’t happen that way, unless your feelings are channeled into the skills that can produce a finely crafted song on the spot.
Once you’ve decided you have a great idea worth spending your time and energy on, developing a great hook is the next most important task. Sometimes ideas do show up in fully developed hooks, like when someone says something so killer it just screams to be a song. Some of my best song ideas have happened in the midst of conversations when something amazing just sort of fell out of my mouth or out of the person’s mouth I’m talking with. It pays to listen well.
Most often, though, a hook has to be teased out of an idea, or out of the essence of an idea, that I suddenly feel strongly about and want to write. That’s when crafting the hook becomes important. Let’s look briefly at each element so you can start using them right away to write your next hit hook.
You actually know intuitively what’s memorable because you don’t have any problem remembering certain hooks that are, well, memorable…
Memorability isn’t as elusive as some people think. You actually know intuitively what’s memorable because you don’t have any problem remembering certain hooks that are, well, memorable. All of the elements that follow here help make the hook memorable, but merely approaching your hook with this goal in mind is key. The mere thought that you’re aiming to make a hook memorable starts you down the path of discovering what will make it so.
You’ll start asking the better questions about your hook, such as, “Is this hook/title unique? Is it too long? Is there anything that stands out from a million other songs? Have I used overly-familiar phrases/ideas/words?”
Ask better questions and you’ll write better songs.
One deceptively simple device that dictates the upward direction of a hook is alliteration. Notice all the “d’s” I just used. That’s alliteration. Think about Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Regardless of your opinion of the song, that’s one memorable hook. Check out those delightful a’s, b’s, and t’s. It’s amazing what a simple poetic device can do for a hook and cause a little ditty to take over the world.
Here we are back to feelings. I didn’t say they weren’t important, it’s just that hit songwriting only starts there and feelings have to be channeled well in order to deliver the goods. There’s an entire branch of psychology dedicated to exploring the reasons we respond emotionally to music, with or without lyrics, but suffice it to say that the most effective songs evoke an emotion that is usually inherent in the hook.
Consider the following:
- You’ve Got a Friend (Carole King)
- I Can’t Make You Love Me (Shamblin/Reid)
- Amazing Grace (Newton)
- Hello (Adele/Kurstin)
- I Will Always Love You (Parton)
- Bet You Still Think About Me (Irwin/Chisolm)
Each of these titles/hooks have a certain emotion, or sentiment, attached to them. Carole King captured a tender sentiment about the comfort of friendship that has affected all of us since the moment we heard JT sing it. Redi/Shamblin captured the melancholy rejection in a one-sided love affair. Newton managed to pen the most famous and often recorded hymn with the exclamation of Amazing Grace and Adele had us all singing along on the long-awaited phone call “from the other side” to see if there was any way to reconnect. Other than “Hello,” notice the alliteration in each of these hooks, too.
The greatest hooks capture something universally felt, known, or believed. We all need and want friends and a lot of us have fallen for a one-way infatuation and felt the sting of rejection. One of my favorite examples of capturing an enormous listenership with a single hook is Trainor/Kadish’ “All About That Bass” that not only has the juicy alliteration, but so aptly caught the near-universal emotion of the plus-sized girls, becoming their anthem of liberation and “bringing booty back.”
The mind thinks in words, but the heart thinks in pictures. Our memories are stored in pictures, like snapshots or mental movies, and never in words. Songs are much more effective when images are attached, whether they’re story songs with some kind of plot or a torch song filled with wrenching passion.
Sometimes imagery is sneaky, like Irwin/Chisolm’s brilliant Blake Shelton hit, “Bet You Still Think About Me.” The second verse goes,” Are you driving up the coast?/Are you wearing any shoes?/Did you outrun all your ghosts?/Like you were always trying to do?” Notice the images of the coastline (my mind went to the A1A), her bare feet, her trying to outrun “ghosts” from her past. All brilliant images nuanced into the lyric in the form of questions.
Another example from the list above is the great Bonnie Raitt hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” This is the song we all wish we’d written, right? “Turn down the lights/Turn down the bed/Turn down these voices inside my head.” Sheer brilliance. Alliteration galore in the verses and images off the chart and off the chains. These writers deserve the millions of dollars they earned writing this one.
All great songs have deceptively simple hooks. “Stop in the Name of Love” (Holland, Dozier, Holland), “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” (Mayer), “Shape of You” (Sheeran), and Dolly Parton’s mega-hit “I Will Always Love You” all share this trait and invite us into their sentiments with deceptively simple hooks.
The more complicated an idea, the greater the need for simplicity. The greatest speakers, teachers, and songwriters learn to break complex ideas into simple phrases if they hope to communicate to the masses. The best motivational speakers, for example, break their speeches into pithy bullet points, punchy phrases that are memorable, emotional, universal, imagistic, and simple. Then they get the audience repeating with them for all the same reasons we use them in our songs.
Another example that springs to my mind now is that ubiquitous infomercial where the host says repeatedly, “Set it and forget it!” They use simple, alliterative, punchy phrases to accentuate their messages just like we use hooks. Those phrases are their hooks and they drill them into the audience by repetition and getting their listeners engaged by shouting them out over and over. And, don’t we all want a million or so people shouting out our hooks?
Capturing these five elements in your hooks and titles isn’t always easy, but increasing your awareness of them will begin to elevate the quality of your songs immediately. Even just a little more thought about making your ideas, hooks, and titles more memorable, emotional, universal, imagistic, and simpler will bring exponential results in your songwriting and a lot more people will stand up and take notice. Work a little harder than the next guy on these and you may just wind up with a hit on your hands.