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HOOK, LINE & SINKER: Tips for writing Great Hooks
By Steve Moss 2002 All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission 


What is a hook? 

Think of any song that was a hit back when you were a kid and start singing it. Chances are, the first thing you think of is its hook.

A hook is a brief, memorable, irresistible bit of music, lyric, or both, that the listener will remember even after hearing your song only once. It's the part that gets a song on the radio and sells records. It's the part you can still remember and sing twenty years later.

A song's hook is often, but not always, a musical setting of its title. In the verse-chorus format of most of today's pop songs, it is often found in the chorus. 

No matter what style of music you're writing, if you have a great hook, you have a shot at a great song. Here are some ideas to consider when you're trying to reel one in.

The military has a rule of thumb for planning successful operations. It goes by the acronym "KISS," for "Keep it Simple, Stupid." I have a variation of this rule I follow when writing hooks. It's "KIRSS" (sounds like "curse"): Keep it Repetitive, Simple (and) Singable

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If your goal is a memorable song, you'll get a lot of mileage out of repetition. What is easier to remember, Abe Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, or the chorus of "Achy-Breaky Heart?" The listener's ear craves the familiar. The more you repeat, the more familiar your material is. 

Simplicity goes hand in hand with repetition. You don't need too much information in a hook. Tell your story in the verses. 

Many classic hooks are simply repetitions of a one-to-three syllable phrase, like "you're no good, you're no good, you're no good, baby you're no good" (Clint Ballard, Jr.). The goofier it looks on paper, the better hook it often is.

If your listener can sing along with your song, she will love it even more. 

Use words that are easy to pronounce

They are easier to sing gracefully. Tongue twisters like "She sells seashells by the seashore" are memorable, granted, but you wouldn't want to sing one, especially in an up-tempo song.

Musically, your hook should cover a nice wide interval, such as a 5th or more

Avoid hyperactive melodies that rise and fall too often within a short span of time, however. Always sing what you've come up with several times before deciding whether to keep it or not.

You can approach a hook lyrically or melodically. 

Try it both ways.

As you practice, you'll probably notice less and less separation between the two until you're routinely getting ideas containing both words and melody.

Along with simplicity and repetition, strive for familiarity in your lyric

Your listener wants a song he can identify with. 

Start a list of common sayings and phrases. Many great song title/hooks are musical settings of phrases we hear all the time. "Why Didn't I Think of That" (by Paul Harrison and Bob McDill, recorded by Doug Stone) is an example. You can also come up with a memorable hook by changing one or two words in a well-known phrase to give it new meaning, as Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Lee did in "Friends in Low Places" (recorded by Garth Brooks).

Repetition of sounds within a phrase also helps make a lyric catchy and memorable

Try to work some alliteration -- repetition of consonant sounds, and assonance -- repetition of vowel sounds, into your next hook line. Phrases like "Cats in the cradle" and "silver spoon" (Harry Chapin) are alliterative. "Take the 'A' Train"(Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn) uses assonance effectively. "Purple People Eater" (Sheb Wooley) is a great combination of both.

If you're starting with music, practice composing short melodic phrases, either in your head or on an instrument. Record them so you can listen to them later. Let them vary in length, anywhere from 2 to 8 measures. 

It's hard to define what makes a "catchy" melody, but you know one when you hear it. Some of yours will stick in your mind, or creep up on you when you are thinking of something else. Those are the catchy ones. When you get one of those, try setting some words to it. Write whatever you can think of that fits. 

Try a few different sets of lyrics for a given melody. Very often your best ideas lurk inside you for a while before surfacing.

Another way to approach melodic hook writing is to use the "Big Leap." Lots of memorable hooks feature a prominent vocal leap. The first two notes of the classic "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (Harold Arlen/Hip Yarburg) are an octave apart.

Unusual or exotic sounding intervals work well too. "Maria" from West Side Story (by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim) features the augmented 4th. "Somewhere" ("there's a place for us") from the same score starts with a minor seventh, an interval that is both wide and unusual, making this hook doubly striking.

Study one of your favorite songs. 

Does one phrase stick out (and stick in your head) above the rest? Where do you find this phrase in the song? At the beginning of the chorus? At the end? How does it work? Take it apart and find out what tricks the writer used to imprint her song on your brain. The more great hooks you study, the more ideas you'll have to try in your own songs.

Good luck and remember: writing well starts with writing.


About the Author

Steve Moss is the editor of Tunesmith Monthly (http://www.tunesmithmonthly.com), a FREE online newsletter dedicated to the nuts and bolts of songwriting. He also performs original and traditional folk music in Illinois and throughout the Midwestern United States. His latest CD is called "Once I Had an Old Banjo."


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