Hooks, the Key to Great Songwriting

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on January 16, 2010

Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17.)  As songwriters, our job is to hook people’s hearts and emotions for the Lord.  A fish hook catches a fish.  A musical hook catches a listener. 

A good fisherman knows what kind of hooks to use to catch certain fish. Trout, flounder, catfish, and bass all require unique hooks to best capture them. Jesus told parables that his listeners could relate to and understand. He would hook them on stories about farmers and fisherman, weddings and banquets, money and mansions, and so on. 

A hook is the thing that grabs people’s attention and makes them remember the song. It’s the part you can’t get out of your head. Three days after hearing the song you find yourself humming the melody or guitar line or drum beat. 

Hooks come in several varieties, such as vocal hooks (vocal sounds that aren’t exactly words, like humming or wo wo wo-ing or oohing or nah nananana nah.) There are instrumental hooks and production hooks, which have more to do with playing and recording than with songwriting. But usually when we refer to “the hook,” what we really mean is the main hook line of a song.

In faster songs the hook line may sometimes be a little short punchy word or phrase, repeated often. In a slow worship song or ballad it’s usually the most emotional line, where the longer, higher notes come together with the main thought of the message at a key place, like the beginning of a verse or chorus, or maybe the end, or sometimes both. But whatever it is, it’s the thing that grabs you, pulls you in, stays with you after the song is over and makes you want to hear or sing it again.

Repetition is the key with hooks. It’s sort of like angling for fish. The hook is dropped not just once but repeatedly. Soon it catches on and lodges in the memory. 

• The main hook will be even stronger if it incorporates the title, as in 

“I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Shout to the Lord,” “Blessed 

Be the Lord God Almighty” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” 

• One of the strongest ways to use your main hook is to open the song with it. The words, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” start the song, appear twice at the beginning of the chorus and again in the last line of the chorus. Other songs that open with their main hook are: “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High,”“Change My Heart, O God,”“Come, Now is the Time to Worship,”“Open the Eyes of My Heart” and “As the Deer.” 

• If the hook happens both at the beginning and end of a chorus, we call that bookends. Bookends accomplish two purposes: 

1. They strengthen the identification of the song. There’s no question about what the title is. 

2. They give an additional emotional punch right at the end of the song. This is especially true if they give the words a slightly di••erent shade of meaning at the end, as in, “Above All.” 

• Every song needs repetition, but some need more than others. Songs to be sung by a crowd (congregational songs) generally need more repetition than songs to be sung to a crowd (“artist” songs). Highly rhythmic songs usually need more repetition than ballads, which may be more contemplative. 

The trick, though, in a very repetitive song, lies in finding the balance between enough repetition to make the song stick and so much repetition that it gets annoying. The simpler and more repetitive a song is, the more danger of it becoming “up-the-wall” music. This happens when the worship leader seems to have missed his exit and doesn’t know where to get off.  We start out in worship and end up wanting to yell “Turn the page!” as, with eyes closed, he blithely keeps us repeating a simple chorus until it brings us crashing down out of the heavenlies. 

Hooks aren’t something new that came in with pop music. How’s this for a great example of hooks? 

“Hallelujah” (Chorus) from Messiah by George Frederick Handel (1742) 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth! 

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 

And He shall reign forever and ever! (Repeat) 



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