Hook, Line and Sinker: How Songwriters Get Into Your Head


  • A Hume


Traut (2005) suggests that the notion of a ‘hook’ remains a troubling concept for scholars of popular music. Research has been limited in this area, except for Burn’s 1987 article, ‘A typology of ‘Hooks’ in popular music’, in which he delves into how hooks are of the utmost importance in both commercial song writing and, in particular, the radio hit single. Kronengold (2005) suggests that sometimes the best ‘hooks’ even come from accidents and aren’t always calculated. Whilst there is considerable material available, to the point of over-saturation, on how to craft a marketable sound and write a good song, the important questions I intend to address lie in the mechanics of song writing. How does a composer write to be recognised? How do songwriters craft that radio hit which can be fairly accurately predicted to be a chart smash? And, importantly, what sticks in people’s heads and how do songwriters achieve this?

In order to accomplish that, I have applied certain theories and patterns, developed through my own recognition of their occurrence in popular music. The four key elements I have discerned are: vowel elongation, motivic reiteration, vowel repetition and use of prosodic devices. Using these as analytic tools provides an opportunity, within an academic frame, to investigate contemporary song writing through practice-based research. This paper will apply them to song lyrics in particular, and suggest that at least some of them are present in what might be considered catchy songs.
A number of songs that have performed well in music charts, including the UK Top 40 and the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, have been dissected into their component parts and tested to see if they comply with the models I have developed. The results have been very interesting.

In this paper I will take each of the four models (vowel elongation, prosodic devices, vowel repetition, and motivic reiteration) I have developed, and consider their applicability to the production of a hit (catchy) song.