The Recording Forums

Musical Hooks, a brief explanation

At the most basic level there is little difference between musical and lyrical hooks. They both serve the same purpose – to grab the listeners interest and hold it. So that hours later the listener is still humming the tune. In some ways the musical hook is better and more easily remembered than the lyrical hook. Musical hooks are also referred to as riffs. Some of the most famous musical hooks in rock and popular music are guitar riffs. George Harrison may not have been a guitar virtuoso but he had a knack for creating memorable guitar riffs such as ‘I Feel Fine’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’.

Musical hooks – the basics.
First of all, a musical hook should not be complicated. Perhaps the most famous musical hook in history is the opening 4 beats to Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. These four beats consist of only two separate notes: three short g notes and one long e note. Never in the history of music was so much done by so few notes for so many musicians. Listen closely and you can hear Beethoven’s influence on the aforementioned ‘I Feel Fine’ guitar hook.

To me the most defining characteristic of a good musical hook is its hummability*. Even the most tone deaf can hum ‘da da da dum’. Most Americans can hum ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ because we’ve heard it so much. Although the ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is exciting and emotional, it is memorable primarily because we have heard it so much, it’s not a very hum friendly tune.

This points out another aspect of a good hook – it should get repeated, not just by the person hearing it, but also throughout the song. Teachers have known for years one of the best ways to learn is by repetition; use that knowledge to improve your songs.

Perhaps the second catchiest musical hook is ‘Shave and a Haircut’.  A musical phrase everyone can hum, even if you don’t know the music you know the beat.

just in case you don’t know the music – here it is
Shave and a haircut

Which leads to the next most important defining characteristic of a good musical hook, it has to have a good beat. (to paraphrase Dick Clark) Disco took the idea of a good beat to an extreme and if you are writing dance music listening to Disco would be a good exercise. In this article I am concentrating more on the short catchy phrase. With a short musical phrase your job to write something memorable is much harder. Not only are the notes important, so are the rests between the notes, how long each note is and how long each rest is.

And now some entirely unscientific, unproven and untested theories – Sounds that go up in pitch sound happier, sounds that go down in pitch are more sad sounding. The famous musical hook from Beethoven’s fifth goes down on the last note and sounds very ominous. The second most famous musical hook, ‘Shave and a haircut’ goes up in pitch for the last two notes and sounds very happy and carefree. Varying the pitch in your hook will allow you to manipulate the listeners’ emotions.

Finally, timing is everything. Music is not just the notes; it is the spaces between the notes. If you want to convey a frenetic feeling then a rest between the notes would not be appropriate. No one likes to listen to an auctioneer all day though. Music, like people, needs room to breath and grow. I believe there is an infinite number of ways eleven notes can be combined and spaced and most of them are interesting. I encourage you to take the time to find them.

*the ability to be hummed. (from Dan’s Dictionary of made up words)