Everyone knows the feeling of having a song stuck in your head. Once it starts it can be hard to make it go away. But the ultra-catchy tunes that stay lodged in your brain for hours are different. I’m talking about the dreaded earworm. These are the irresistible melodies and musical figures that you can’t help but hum under your breath. But what are earworm hooks exactly? How do they work and how can you write one?
In this article, I’ll explain what an earworm is and six strategies to create your own.
Let’s get started.
What is a hook?
A hook is a snippet of musical material that catches a listener’s attention and sticks in their memory after the song is over.
In popular music, the hook comes most often from the vocal melody. But hooks can appear in any musical shape or form.
An earworm is a slang term for the type of hook that seems to work its way deep into your brain and put down roots.
Strictly speaking, an earworm is a psychological phenomenon where a musical figure persists in the mind long after the listening experience is over.
It’s a common occurrence that’s mostly harmless, but it can still cause frustration in severe cases.
Some listeners complain that earworm hooks are distracting and unwelcome, but most songwriters would be happy to write something with such a powerful effect.
In fact, writing hooks is a central part of a songwriter’s craft—especially for topliners and professional songwriters.
What makes a hook catchy?
Catchiness might be impossible to define.
If creating catchy hooks were a repeatable formula, it wouldn’t be hard to crack the top of the charts!
One reason why is because so many hooks arise from a process of trial and error. With a little luck and experimentation, a great hook might just land in your lap.
But you don’t have to leave everything to chance to write hooks.
Here are a few features that many earworm melodies share that can help you create your own.
Nothing makes your music more memorable than tasteful repetition.
It’s not easy for untrained ears to remember all of a song’s musical features after a single playthrough.
But repeating the most important elements throughout the structure can make them stick.
If you already have a melody that feels catchy and addictive, strong repetition can turn a basic hook into an irresistible earworm.
Ram Jam’s “Black Betty” is an example of a somewhat frustrating earworm that uses repetition to get stuck in your head.
Melodies might seem like they’re all unique, but many of them follow a structure.
It’s a deep subject that’s too big to explain here, but look out for patterns when you hear a melody that catches your ear.
A common melody structure is called call and response. In this pattern, the melody’s second phrase answers the first with a contrasting or complementary line.
Other melodic forms take an original melody and develop it over a series of phrases to match with a harmonic progression.
Giving the melody a structure can make it easier to remember and stick in your head.
A driving rhythm can provide the perfect backdrop for an earworm. But sometimes a rhythm is memorable enough to become its own irresistible hook.
Rhythmic patterns that include features like polyrhythms and syncopation often have a looping sense of forwarding motion that’s easy to get stuck in your head.
Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” is a great example of a rhythmic earworm.
Singers get to have all the fun when it comes to hooks. They get the catchiest melodies, but they also have the power of lyrics on their side.
A great turn of phrase can be an earworm even without a strong melody to prop it up.
If you’ve ever caught yourself singing along when the lyrics are a perfect fit for the song, you’ll know what I mean.
Try to match the phrasing of your words tightly with the song’s melody and look for moments where the lyrics can stand out.
Basslines can play different roles in an arrangement, but some of the most memorable are melodic hooks.
Melodies played in the lowest instrumental voice have a unique character. It’s the reason why writing a bassline hook will make you think differently about what you play.
Hooks in the bassline can often be simple and integrated with the drum pattern.
The intro to David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” is a great example of a simple but effective bassline hook.
Certain music production tricks can act as hooks when done right.
I’m talking about unique audio effects, left-field samples, or any flair of the product itself that can catch a listener’s attention.
If you’ve created a unique sound in your DAW that makes a track come alive, feel free to let it take center stage as the hook.
Cher’s ”Believe” is a great example of how an effect like Auto-Tune can turn a strong vocal hook into a persistent earworm.
Stuck in your head
Earworm hooks may be unwelcome for some, but it’s easy to see why so many musicians hope to write one.
Not even the best songwriters can deliver an earworm on demand, but there are plenty of strategies that can help you find them more often.
If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start for writing your own catchy hooks.