The International Language of Hooks

In one of my first posts for this blog, I talked a little about a lesson I learned in a studio years ago from a producer who had played guitar on hit records for artists like Robert Palmer, Meatloaf, and others.  The general idea was that a great pop song needs hooks, but not just the ovious ones and not just one or two. A great pop song needs four, maybe even 5 hooks, and they could be anything from the obvious (catchy vocals in the chorus) to the obscure (the subtle winding guitar line on a second rhythm guitar track). Basically, it’s the moments you look forward to when you listen to a song, or maybe the moments you don’t think about but every time you listen, something clicks in your head, forcing you to move, sing along, or just stop what you’re doing.

A few quick examples I can suggest- the opening guitar riffs in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Blister in the Sun,” or “Layla,” the synth and horns in “The Power of Love,” the bassline in “I Want You Back” (leaving the Sonos version aside for a moment), the simple doom-bah snap of the drum entrance in “Paradise City,” the little guitar picking “bah-dah” after the main riff in “Jack and Diane“, that weird whiny sound on House of Pain’s “Jump Around” (yeah, I went there…this was the JAM when I was in middle school), and plenty of moments in songs by all-time pop greats like Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, etc.  One less conventional hook which we talked about in that studio is the the long inhaled breath in “Girl.” Hip hop artists and producers, Dr. Dre (explicit) and Kanye West in particular, have probably been the most successful at creating and exploiting hooks in the past twenty years. I bet you can think of at least three hooks produced/performed by either one of them right now.

The thing is, with a cappella music, we have some advantages in creating hooks. The human voice connects to people in ways a keyboard can’t. (Deke Sharon has mentioned this numerous times- check out his extensive series of interesting posts here). We get a chance to use syllables or words, an oft-overlooked opportunity, to create hooks. Also, we have to be creative when arranging in order to convince people to want to listen to our cover over the original.

As I have listened to more international a cappella music in recent years, music which is often in languages I do not understand, I have come to appreciate the value of hooks more than ever. When I was a classical vocal performance major in college, I had to translate every German, French, Italian, and even Russian  song into English in order to really connect to the core meaning. With some of these vocal groups I hear now, I don’t necessarily need a literal translation to appreciate, love, and connect to what I’m hearing. Groups like Maybebop, Club for Five, MICappella, BR6, among many others, are so smart at arranging and songwriting that the value of the lyrics is almost secondary sometimes. The reason these groups are so good? Yep, the use of hooks. Listen to a Maybebop song from either of their last two albums in German. I guarantee you will find at least a few songs loaded with catchy, cool moments that dig their way into your brain.

I listen to a lot of a cappella music, not just for this blog but for my responsibilities at RARB and Voices Only.  I listen to groups that are new, and groups that have been around forever, groups of youngsters and groups of…more experienced singers.  If there’s one thought I have listening to the vast majority of a cappella music, though, it is that the arranger didn’t work hard enough to create hooks or memorable moments.

I have written songs, I’ve arranged songs, and I know it is far easier said than done, but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a top priority. Every time you write a new song or arrange a cover, you should be thinking about hooks. They are universal, don’t require translation, and ultimately are timeless.  Just look at the list I suggested before…how many of those hooks can you immediately recall, despite their span across decades and genres?

Think about it. If you want your music to have long-term, broad appeal, memorable meaning, start thinking in the international language of hooks.



What do you think?