Writing Catchy Songs Is All About The Hook

Want to write catchier songs? Then you’ll need to come up with a hook: a catchy, recurring part that makes your song instantly recognisable.
One of the hardest parts of songwriting is coming up with a hook: that catchy, recurring and instantly-recognisable bit that gets the listener ‘hooked’. The hook adds colour to a song and can make it a banger. When violinist and singer-songwriter Femke Ravenbergen (Bird in a Glasshouse) was in the middle of writing her EP and needed a little help to make her tunes more catchy, Phaedra Kwant came to the rescue and and offered some tips and tricks to help poke the inspiration and write some good hooks.

A Specialised Skill

Writing music encompasses a complete field of study, where being talented alone doesn’t cut it. You also need knowledge of music theory to make the most of self-penned songs. Every song requires a structure, a tension arc, melody lines, chords, lyrics, rhythm and arrangements, where each aspect is significant but can also be singled out so it rises above the rest and becomes almost visible, palpable and colourful. The part that everyone recognises as the song’s standout feature is what’s called the hook. Virtually every tune has one and no potential banger can do without it. For songwriters, creating the hook is pretty much a basic necessity of life. It’s no different for violinist and singer-songwriter, Femke Ravenbergen (Bird in a Glasshouse), who’s naturally eager to learn — a trait that fully supports her drive to craft songs that are full of sensation and atmosphere. Usually, it’s just her, her violin and her loopstation, which yields surprising and refreshing results. Femke’s singing voice is clear-and-pure and has a slightly rough edge that brings to mind Amy Winehouse. Her biggest musical role model is Fink, but she also draws inspiration from Portishead, Massive Attack and Andrew Bird.

Plucking Violin Strings

Femke is currently working on an EP full of ambient music, so the session with Phaedra couldn’t have been timed better. Phaedra is not only the bassist for McChicks and her own eponymous band, but a talented and experienced songwriter and songwriting teacher. Femke pulls up her iPad to showcase one of her songs, Traveller Star, which is in a late stage of production. It’s a lovely tune constructed from loops that are backed up by plucked as well as strummed violin strings, and parts where she uses the resonance chamber of her violin to tape out rhythms. Her vocals and the melody float beautifully above the loops. Phaedra agrees: “It sounds pretty cool. It’s funny, it actually reminds me of Paris and Amélie.” As good as the snippet sounds and reveals her talent, Femke knows she needs all the professional assistance that she can get to make the most of the songs. She wants to learn to create a hook for every song which, as Phaedra points out, will be challenging since Femke has built her songs on loops, which requires a completely different approach than more traditionally written tunes. Femke grabs her violin and plugs it into her loopstation to showcase ‘A Garden for the Painter’, one of the songs from her new EP. The song starts out with a gentle fingerpicking pattern on which a second pattern is stacked along with a rhythm tapped out of the resonance chamber. Femke is playing her violin more like a guitar. Phaedra listens and then says: “I assume you write songs while you’re improvising: “When students attend my songwriting sessions, I always tell them that I write songs the traditional way. I base the writing on melody and harmony. What you’re playing is incredibly beautiful, but harmonically, it’s limited. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are things we can look at and build on by going for a different structure in terms of rhythm, harmony and melody.”

A Good Melody

“If you want to write a song that people won’t be able to get out of their head, you’ll have to come up with a hook,” Phaedra says. Femke asks how she might incorporate a hook into ‘A Garden for the Painter’. Phaedra: “A solid melody is a basic principle for creating a hook. With this song, the melody doesn’t stick, so the first step is to see if you can tweak the melody and make it more catchy. You could, for instance, draw out one of the notes or make a line stand out a bit more, because lyrical hooks are a thing too. “Does the hook need to be an individual element or can it also be an integral part of the song, like a little riff or rhythm?” Femke asks. “A hook needs to stand out,” Phaedra explains. “It’s the bit that people remember and makes the song recognisable. Technically, the hook can be anything, whether it’s in the melody, the lyrics, the arrangement or the production. What’s always smart is making a song catchy from the get-go and working your hook into the intro.” The thing with Femke’s music, however, is that it’s built out of layers, which are mainly designed to create atmosphere. To create hooks and write more traditionally, Femke will have to drop her focus on atmosphere and instead prioritise the shape and structure of her songs. Femke: “The layering doesn’t create much sense of progression. I do have a verse, chorus and bridge, but my producer wants me to ignore structure and write from the heart. “I also write from my heart,” Phaedra replies. “But I do it with a structured approach. Every day, I’ll play every little idea I have and write down all of my little nuggets of inspiration. When I hit a wall while I’m writing, I can use my knowledge of harmony, structure and musical theory to find solutions. If you think about it, songwriting is really a profession in its own right.”

More Groove and Variation

Recently, Femke has mainly been using loops to structure her songs. Loops can make some parts sound a bit uninteresting, which Phaedra says can cause people to lose interest. Femke: “That’s exactly why I want to write hooks.” She has already experimented with different instruments, including guitar, keys and percussion, but she’s still struggling to create a proper hook. “Perhaps your hooks lie in the element of surprise,” Phaedra suggests. According to her, the surprise lies in making music dynamic. “I always write songs on the piano and focus on the groove. You should do the same thing and make your groove the hook. And that means actively focussing on the rhythm.” Femke says that’s an interesting idea and wants to apply it to her song, ‘A Garden for the Painter’. She breaks out her violin and plays the initial riff. It’s a basic little riff, so Phaedra tells her to pause for a second: “You should make that riff more exciting. Add more variation. Maybe add a rest. Tension is often in the silence.” To show Femke what she means, Phaedra plays the riff on the piano. While the notes are the same, she changes the groove by changing the rests and the note values. The riff immediately sounds more fun and exciting. Sometimes, it’s adding something to the right ingredients that will really pull out the flavour of those ingredients. That’s exactly what Phaedra just did, and suddenly, the riff has a more catchy feel to it, all because there’s now a kind of tension between the notes and the silence in between. “Alternating long notes and rests or ghost notes is a great way to make riffs more interesting and recognisable,” says Phaedra. It’s cool to see how a few small tweaks can transform the tune and demonstrates why songwriting is often about the details.

Out of the Comfort Zone

They go over the initial riff one more time so that Femke can loop it properly. To be able to do what Phaedra suggests, Femke needs to get out of her comfort zone. It’s tricky but not impossible so she’s trying her best to play the riff as perfectly as possible. After rehearsing it a few more times and recording the loop, Phaedra wants to look at the second loop. “The groove of the initial riff lays down a rhythmic foundation that creates room for more. The new loop makes more sense and piling a second loop on top will make things much more harmonically interesting.” Femke: “I’m so used to a melody-based point of view. I don’t think about the rhythm enough. It’s a violinist’s handicap.” They proceed to go over the second loop, which needs to go against the first loop. After deciding on the notes together, Femke starts playing her violin again, but struggles. She keeps reverting back to old riffs that she’s played a million times, which makes it hard to play something different. “Learning this sort of stuff requires thinking in rhythmic patterns,” Phaedra says. “It’s good to think in segments.” Determined to get it right, Femke keeps practising until she can play the new riff almost flawlessly.

Enhanced Dynamics

What Phaedra is trying to do is create a layered hook by adding harmonic tension and recognisability to the loops. The first two loops are already sounding more dynamic. Next, Phaedra wants to tackle the bass line and asks Femke to play it over the first loop. Since she’s used to something completely different, Femke almost immediately gets it all mixed up. Phaedra grabs her bass to demonstrate the part. “It’s already pretty cool and will only get better if you add a handful of small rhythmic tweaks, especially if you fatten up those bass lines.” Both musicians play together for a bit so Femke can get to grips with the bass line. Phaedra: “Add some drums and cross rhythms, then change up the time signature and you’ll have something completely different.” The mission to make the loops more exciting through rhythmic tweaks rather than melodic tweaks is a success. The song is much more dynamic and there’s even room to do more with it. For Femke, the rhythmic approach is a real eye-opener. “This is so cool. I’m amazed that something so simple as creating different rhythms can make so much more of a song. It’s basically ‘less is more’ for every loop but just with the right rhythm,” says Femke, who’s now eager to revisit her other work with a new plan of attack. Summing it all up, Phaedra concludes the session reiterating that creating a hook is all about thinking about melody and rhythm.

Femke Ravensbergen

Femke Ravensbergen aka Bird in a Glasshouse isn’t your standard singer-songwriter. Instead of a guitar or piano, it’s the violin that dominates her music, where that same violin also serves as a double bass and percussion instrument. Bird in a Glasshouse’s pop-folk sound includes traces of jazz and trip hop, and can be described as original, non-conformist, creative, multimedial and inquisitive. Femke’s clear vocals with acoustic instruments create a unique world full of mysterious and exciting soundscapes. Bird in a Glasshouse won the finals of Art Rocks at the Noorderslag festival in 2015 and has already played countless venues across the Netherlands.

Phaedra Kwant

Phaedra is the bassist, singer and composer for her own eponymous jazz band and for pop trio, McChicks. She also plays in various other bands and is often requested for freelance gigs in the pop, jazz and theatre scene, where she’s worked with various big-name Dutch artists. Internationally, she’s toured in Japan, Senegal, Ukraine, Italy, Russia, Greece, Spain and the United States. She studied the bass guitar at the Amsterdam Conservatory and became the first female Master of Music (Bass) of the Netherlands in 2004. These days, she’s an endorser for Aquilar Amplification and Kala U-Basses and regularly works as a guest-lecturer at various conservatories. She’s also released two solo albums, Too Much in Store (2009) and Still Listening (2013), has been commissioned by the Dutch royal family a few times, and played gigs across Japan and the United States as part of her own jazz trio.

See also

» How to Cover a Song: 3 Easy Tips
» How to Write the Perfect, Personal Wedding Song
» Songwriting Tips for Beginners

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