Tips on Writing Better Hooks – A Producer’s Perspective

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

When I first graduated college and landed in Los Angeles, I’ll admit, I was a bit green in the songwriting department. Even though I had a solid music education under my belt, with a focus on songwriting and composition, and could navigate the piano like it was second nature, the art of writing a hit pop song still eluded me.

So, when I snagged an internship with a renowned music producer, it felt like I had been thrown into the deep end. But, you know what they say – sink or swim, right? So, I swam…fast.

I still remember the time he asked me to whip up some songs for an artist flying in from Europe. Giddy with excitement, I worked day and night for four straight days, putting together what I thought were some promising ideas.

Proudly, I presented my work, admitting they might need a little polishing but were a good start. As he played my songs, he kept skipping parts, and I was confused. “Where’s your chorus? Your hook?” he asked.

It was a light bulb moment for me. I had been so focused on the verse and bridge sections, I hadn’t given enough attention to the hook. He gave me some sage advice – start with the hook and then build your song around it. Make everything about the hook.

It was a perspective I hadn’t considered before. Listening to my favorite pop songs, I soon realized he was right. A strong chorus or hook is indeed the heart of a hit song.

So, here are a few tips to boost your songwriting skills, especially when it comes to crafting catchy pop songs. Hopefully, this will lead you to pen many chart-toppers in the future!

Rhythm

Have you ever listened to a great R&B song and realized that it almost sounds like a cool, modern, funky version of a nursery rhyme? Just take a minute to check out Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’. The catchiness of the song lies in her rhythmic play with “Ella Ella Ella” from the word ‘Umbrella’.

Doesn’t it remind you of the classic song we all sang in preschool, ‘The wheels on the bus’? Remember how the wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round, and ’round and ’round’?

And who can forget the classic rhythmic interplay in the hook of the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘My Humps’? The repetition of “My humps, my humps, my humps” becomes an anthem-like chant that you can’t help but groove to!

So, when you’re crafting a strong chorus, a good place to start could be humming or mumbling some catchy rhythms. Something short and memorable, that’s what you’re aiming for!

After all, the whole idea of a ‘hook’ is that it hooks the listener. In other words, we’re creating an “earworm”, something that listeners can’t get out of their head, something that millions of people will remember.

And let’s not forget, the most primitive aspect of music is rhythm. It’s the universal language that’s been used in tribal music for hundreds of thousands of years. So, why not use it to our advantage while creating music?

Repetition

Creating a catchy hook is like a dance between rhythm and repetition. It’s all about repeating a word or phrase in a way that feels consistent but doesn’t become tiresome.

It’s a delicate balance, but mastering it is a true art form in songwriting.

So you might be wondering, how do we strike that balance? How do we keep a hook from becoming monotonous?

Well, it’s all about variety! If you start with eighth notes, follow them up with quarter notes, and maybe even sprinkle in some sixteenth notes. Mixing up the rhythm in your repetition keeps things fresh and makes your tune something listeners will want to play on repeat.

Let’s revisit the classic nursery rhymes we all know and love. Take “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, for instance. The first part, “row, row, row,” is all quarter notes, “gently down the stream” is all eighth notes, and “merrily, merrily, merrily” is all triplets.

The rhythm and repetition build as the song progresses. Imagine how dull it would be if it stuck to the same rhythm the whole time.

Melodic Direction

I’ve got a little nugget of wisdom to share from my time writing a bunch of songs with some super-talented pop songwriters in Los Angeles. Have you ever noticed that the chorus usually soars above the melody of the verse and pre-chorus?

You’ll find that in most cases, the chorus never dips lower in notes or scales than those first two sections. The magical ingredient in catchy choruses? A mix of rising and falling phrases!

This trick also keeps the melody fresh and exciting. And if you’re crafting the song for a particular singer, it’s important not to push in one direction too much.

You don’t want to risk exceeding their vocal range. After all, there’s a limit to how high or low most of us can sing!

Contrast

I once picked up a pretty neat trick from the fantastic pop songwriter, Max Martin. He always makes sure to strike a balance between the number of words, rhythms, and notes from one section to another.

This way, the listener never feels overwhelmed. If one part of the song is busy, he’ll mellow it down with longer notes for the next section, before turning the energy back up for the chorus.

Take, for example, Ellie Goulding’s ‘Love me like you do’ from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack. Listen carefully, and you’ll notice the contrasting styles – busy sections juxtaposed with longer, higher intervals before the chorus gets busier.

Now, Max Martin didn’t invent this style. You can find it in Beatles songs, and even more prominently in classical compositions. Many orchestral songs weave their entire structure around the contrast between slow, flowing melodies in the beginning sections, and contrasting, rhythmic melodies for the main sections.

In my opinion, what pop songwriters of the caliber of Max Martin or the magnificent Diane Warren bring to the table is a much more concise and clever form of contrast than that of classical composers.

Take, for instance, Warren’s iconic 80s hit ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ from the movie Mannequin. It’s a classic example of contrasting melodies – a slower, more ballad-like melody in the verse leading into a massive, rhythmic anthem-style melody in the chorus.

Max Martin discusses this technique, one of his personal favorites, in a super cool masterclass. You can check it out on YouTube.

Question and Answer

If you’re not a musician, you might not notice this clever little trick that’s often used in hit songs with big, catchy choruses and hooks. It’s called the question-and-answer method, and it’s been around since the days of the classical composers—even Beethoven used it in his famous Fifth Symphony!

You know the part I’m talking about: those iconic, powerful notes in the intro, followed by the lighter, higher-pitched ones that seem to ‘answer’ them.

You can still hear this method in modern songs today, like in The Weeknd’s catchy tune, “I can’t feel my face”. The ‘question’ part of the hook goes, “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you…” and the ‘answer’? “But I like it.”

Even the brilliant film composer Hans Zimmer uses this method for writing his unforgettable movie melodies. He talks about it in the trailer for his MasterClass—definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in songwriting or composing.

Trust me, it’s packed with tons of wisdom you won’t want to miss!

Note Bending

Isn’t it fascinating how the age-old tradition of bending notes to create unique and catchy melodies, originally inspired by ethnic chants from across the globe, works so beautifully in pop and rock music hooks?

I’m sure we can all nod in agreement that the Oscar-winning, super catchy melody of the legendary A.R. Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’ is a shining example of how note bending can be a powerful tool in crafting top-notch hooks.

Now, let’s take a more subtle example – Sting and The Police’s ‘Roxanne’. If you listen closely, you’ll notice that the actual formal chorus is probably when Sting says “Put on the red light.”

Yet, the part everyone always sings is that initial bend where Sting ascends from a low note to a higher one, shouting ‘Roxanne’ like a drunken sailor. I bet all of you instantly know what part I’m referencing!

Backing Vocal Friendly

Here’s a fun little tip I picked up during my first internship with that top-notch pop producer: A catchy chorus is key, but don’t forget about the potential for layering with hefty background vocals.

You see, most of the unforgettable tunes that have become classics – the kind you’d hear a wedding band belt out – have background vocals in the chorus. A whopping 95% of them do, in fact!

Big-name pop creators like Dr. Luke and Max Martin are total whizzes when it comes to vocal harmonies.

Ever listen to a hit from *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, or even Britney Spears? You’ll notice they’re not belting out the chorus at full volume. Instead, it’s the volume and richness of the backing vocals that make the hooks sound so grand.

Fun fact for you: When I was working at the recording studio that produced Ricky Martin’s “Cup of Life”, it wasn’t Ricky doing all the harmonies in his own chorus.

He was singing lead, while the producers belted out the big harmonies. And guess what? That tune skyrocketed to a global number-one hit.

It was even chosen as the anthem for the 1998 World Cup!

So, the hook needed to resonate with people all over the world. Think “We Are the World” – that’s a prime example of how background vocals can turn a hook into an anthem.

Lyrical Creativity

One key thing to remember when crafting those irresistible hooks for your choruses is that top-notch writers often spend a considerable amount of time figuring out just the right words for repetition and vowel phrasing. It’s like a word puzzle, and the result can be quite magical!

For instance, some of the best hooks are found in sad songs. It’s fascinating how you can essentially dissect the vowels, intervals, and even individual letters to create a captivating hook.

Take Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as a classic example. The entire word is spelled out letter by letter, but it’s the rhythm and rhyming of those letters that makes the hook so catchy.

And then there’s the creative lyricism in Taylor Swift’s hit song, “Cruel Summer”. Swift draws out the word ‘cruel’ for an emotive effect, and breaks ‘summer’ into two syllables.

The result? A melody that not only conveys the meaning of the words but also sticks in your mind.

These catchy tunes are called “earworms” for good reason – they’re designed to linger in your memory and in your ears for days after you’ve heard the song.

Now, I’m not saying this from a fan’s perspective. In fact, some of these melodies, like Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer”, can sometimes be a bit grating.

It’s not about whether you personally like them or not. What’s important is acknowledging the craft behind them – they’re incredibly clever and undeniably catchy.

And that, my friend, makes all the difference!

Final Thoughts

I often get asked to share some advice on podcasts, zooms, and panels for all the bright-eyed folks eager to join the music industry.

If you ask me one thing that’s super crucial and rewarding in the music industry, I’d say it’s all about songwriting and publishing. It may not have the glitz and glam of touring and recording, but trust me, great songs will forever be in demand.

I’ve had my share of learning curves, and these days, I’m pouring more of my energy into mastering the art of Pop songwriting. I’ve dabbled a bit here and there, and even have some producer credits for parts of songs that made it big.

But now, I’m all about creating the catchiest hooks I can.

With all the talk about AI taking over jobs, especially in the music field, I firmly believe that the human touch in creating unique, memorable songs will stand the test of time.

So, let’s pop on our Songwriter caps and create some killer hooks for future chart-toppers, shall we?

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About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

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