The Localist: How to Write an Album, Part 4 – A Manifold of Hooks
In Parts 1 thru 3, we looked at some more abstract aspects of album writing. Essentially, when you decide to write an album intended for release to the public, you are intending that the public listen to your album. However, asking the public to listen to your album places non-insubstantial burdens on you to put out something that gives the public a reason to listen to your album as opposed to the tens of thousands of other albums put out every year.
But how do you write something new and substantial? We discussed new-ness in the last part – you have to know what music is being put out now, and know a bit about the history of music to discern if you’re writing new music. But what about substantiality? Here, I’d like to start by reframing a popular concept in songwriting, and in particular, the concept of the hook. I think the popular conception of the hook is the catchy line of a song that a listener is supposed to find especially memorable. But a hook can be so much more than that, and it helps to understand how many types of hooks there are and distinguish between them. At base though, something is a hook if by listening to it, someone’s attention can be drawn to it as something memorable.
Hooks can be melodic, they can relate to chord structure, they can relate to tone, they can be rhythmic. They can relate to production, or arrangement. They can be lyrical, and have to do with the sounds of the words, they can relate to pronunciation, they can relate to concepts. Conceptual hooks can relate to all kinds of things, historical, popular, academic, local, religious, intellectual. Hooks can concern the relationship between hooks in a song. I don’t provide an exhaustive categorization of hooks. But I think it’s important to understand how many types of hooks there are.
Of related importance, songs of course can have multiple hooks, and if you want to write a good song, the song should have multiple hook overlapping throughout. The old conception of the hook – say, a catchy chorus of a song, is a low bar to aim for as a writer. When you have a song that you want to put on a record, you should be able to know what the hooks are, because understanding the hooks of the song is a way of understanding what makes the song good.
Of course, a song doesn’t have a hook just by you, the writer, saying its a hook. A hook is a success term, in that it’s a hook if it succeeds at hooking people. A melodic hook has to actually be an ear worm to be a melodic hook. If a conceptual hook of a song is that it expresses a deep truth about immigration, the song has to actually express that, or its not actually a conceptual hook of the song. (As opposed to the song merely being “about” immigration).
How do you know if you have a hook? Well, you can certainly know what aspects of your music hook you. But as noted before, you’re releasing your music with the intent of having the general public hear it. Here, it’s a good exercise to have friends listen to your music before release and tell you (without your guidance) what the hooks of your song are. If they don’t latch on to what you think the hooks of your song are, then you may not have created the hooks you thought you did.
A final note is that conceptual hooks require a fair bit of mastery of musical elements in order to work. A tonal or melodic hook is fairly easy to write, but a conceptual hook oftemtimes requires wielding melodic, rhythmic, chord and lyrical hooks in a way that uniquely serves the concept. Say you want to tell a particular story. Not just *any* set of chords is going to do the best or even an adequate job at doing so. Not just *any* melody will work. You could take your best melodic hook, and it wouldn’t probably be the best melodic hook to use for that particular story. How do you find the right melodic, rhythmic, etc… hooks for your concept? Well, this is what I mean when I say that it helps to build your toolkit for self-expression.
The Localist is a column focusing on issues relating to aspiring local musicians in New York City. In his free time, the author performs as St. Lenox. St. Lenox’s most recent record, “Ten Fables of Young Ambition and Passionate Love” was placed on Best Albums lists at Pop Matters and AllMusic. AllMusic credits St. Lenox with “some of the most unique and unconventionally thrilling pop music in the late 2010s.”