Songwriting basics and tips 13: Set a Hook to Catch a Fish …

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

Catch me if you can …

A hook. or hook line, is a memorable, repeated instrumental or vocal line in a song. sax.gif The key word there is “memorable”, because, if it ain’t catchy, you don’t get caught! In previous posts, we looked briefly at instrumental hooks, e.g the sax riff in Baker Street, but this time round we’ll concentrate on vocal hooks.

Sometimes it’s there instead of a chorus, and sometimes it’s part of a chorus, but, wherever it is, it’s essential for the song to stick in your mind. The hook, since it’s easily remembered, is often the title of the song. Here are some great examples of hooks from various genres:

  • Help!
  • Respect
  • Soul man
  • Shakin’ all over
  • Who knows where the time goes?
  • Will ye go, lassie, go?
  • Stormy weather

It should be noted that almost all of those are also the titles of the songs.

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Context is everything …

So, what makes a hook memorable? Well, it’s not always a question of it being memorable in itself. “Soul man”, for example, wouldn’t necessarily be so catchy in another song. It’s the fact that it is the only part of the song that is sung in harmony, and paired with a nifty little brass riff, that makes it jump out at you.soul.gif Check out Sam & Dave’s original Soul Man.

Shakin’ All Over has a greater impact than it might otherwise have because the whole song comes to a shuddering stop just before the hook is sung. It’s “framed” by the rest of the song for maximum impact. Couple that with a whole bunch of instrumental hooks – prominently the opening lead guitar and the pentatonic roll going on underneath the vocal – and the whole thing screams “Hit!!!”

Other rock’n’roll classic songs that employ similar stop-start tactics are Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire (the link is to Dennis Quaid miming in the bio-pic, but it’s a great re-mastering job), and Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up.

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Contrast and compare …

bob.gifMany songs strengthen the impact of their hooks by inserting a secondary contrast hook. Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman (I kind of like Van Morrison’s version – so that’s the link!) does this by pushing the main hook at you three times in the chorus before closing with an unexpected contrast:

 

She takes just like a woman,  
And she aches just like a woman
She makes love just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl

It’s interesting also that Van Morrison, in this song and in many others, makes very effective use of the stop-start device.

Lorenz Hart’s brilliant lyric for I Wish I Were in Love Again (© Rodgers and Hart 1937) turns the whole thing on its head by practically making the entire song contrast with the hook line!

The sleepless nights, the daily fights
The quick toboggan when you reach the heights
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites
I wish I were in love again

The broken dates, the endless waitsplates.gif
The lovely loving and the hateful hates
The conversation with the flying plates
I wish I were in love again

[Bridge]
No more pain, no more strain
Now I’m sane, but I would rather be punch-drunk

The pulled out fur of cat and cur
The fine mis-mating of a him and her
I’ve learned my lesson but
I wish I were in love again

The furtive sigh, the blackened eye
The words, “I’ll love you ’til the day I die”
The self-deception that believes the lie
I wish I were in love again

When love congeals it soon revealsseals.gif
The faint aroma of performing seals
The double-crossing of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again

Believe me, sir, I much prefer
The classic battle of a him and her
I don’t like quiet and
I wish I were in love again
In love again

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The short and the long of it …

As you may have gathered, the principle job of a hook is to draw attention to itself. e.g. by putting it in a different setting from the rest of the song, or by creating some kind of verbal contrast.

Popular music in particular often underlines the hook by keeping it punchy and short. Probably the best example of that is the one-word hook in The Beatles’ Help! The word “Help” appears in the intro, the repeated verse, and all through the chorus. Hard to miss, and hard to forget!mp.gif

There’s also the option of making your hook strange enough to be unforgettable. While the songs may not project the image you want to deliver, there is no denying that Zabadak!,  Mah Na Mah Na, and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, once heard, are not easily forgotten!

The last of those, while one word, can’t really be argued as short, but it does present a total contrast to the rest of the song.

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Make it memorable …

And that’s the main thing about hooks: contrast. Make them stick out from the rest of the song. We’ve looked at several ways of doing that:

  • arrangement – add a harmony, cut/augment the backing, pair the vocal hook with an instrumental one
  • reverse expectations – verbally contrast the hook with the main lyric
  • change the line length – make the hook shorter (or, occasionally, longer) than the main verse pattern
  • make it different – try to think of a hook that no-one would expect, a strange word or phrase, maybe use a foreign language (e.g. Michelle)

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Next time, we’ll have a few insights into how I put a narrative song together.

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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