Pop Music Theory


1-7 (Intro & Pitch) +
8-18 (Major Scale) +
19-29 (Chord Progressions) +
30-34 (Hook Chords) -
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35-41 (Written Notes) +
42-50 (Song Chorus) +

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Lesson 34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords

This lesson explores creating a chord-based hook, a common first step in writing a song.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:
Pop songs almost always have a hook. A hook:
  • Can be any short, easy-to-recognize musical idea.
  • Is repeated; often immediately, and always many times during the song.
  • Is often the foundation of the song's chorus.

Chord-based hook. A hook can be various kinds of musical idea, but one common kind is a short chord progression along with a melody phrase. I call this a chord-based hook.

The steps in creating a chord-based hook are typically:
  1. Choose a short chord progression for your "hook chord phrase" and play it over and over.
  2. Make up a melody (and lyrics) that fits the chords.

The rest of this lesson will explore that first step, creating hook chord phrases. We can develop our art for choosing these by:
  1. Analyzing the hook chord phrases in popular songs
  2. Practicing using the ideas we find

To demonstrate, let's analyze the hook chord phrases in a couple of hit songs:
  • Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan
  • Crazy by Gnarls Barkley
(Links to recordings at the end of the lesson.)

Like A Rolling Stone

The hook chord phrase in Like A Rolling Stone, at the chorus (1:05 in the recording), goes like this:

|| /   /  /   /   | /   /  // |
How does it feel How doesit feel

"Statistics" for this hook chord phrase:
  • 3 chords total
  • 2 measures long
  • The whole chorus consists of just this 2-bar phrase, repeated 6 times.

The Roman and functional analyses (Lesson 26: Diatonic Function Analysis) of this phrase are:

C  F  G

This is about as basic as a chord phrase can get: I → IV → V, T → SD → D.

1st half, 2nd half. One more point about this chord phrase: If you want to fit 3 chords into 2 measures, there are two obvious ways to do it, fitting two chords into either the first measure or the second measure:
  C   F     G        
| / / / / | / / / / |
  C         F   G        
| / / / / | / / / / |

What difference does it make? In this hook, with this melody rhythm, doing it the first way above creates a "1st-half, 2nd-half story" between the chords and the words:
  • Measure 1 (1st half): Changing chords get the attention
  • Measure 2 (2nd half): The words get the attention
(For more on "1st-half, 2nd-half stories", see Lesson 46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone.)


Here's the chorus to Gnarls Barkley's Crazy (0:37 in the recording):

Cm E♭
|/ / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

A♭ Gsus4 G
|/ / / / | / / / / | / / / / | / / / / |

"Statistics" for this hook chord phrase:
  • 5 chords (or only 4, if you count the Gsus4 → G as just "one chord")
  • 8 measures long
  • The whole chorus is just this 8-bar phrase, played just once. But the verse uses this exact same chord phrase, so this chord phrase is actually repeated a lot in the song.

This song is in the key of C minor (Lesson 29: Minor Key Triads), so the Roman and functional analyses are:

T (T) SD D D
Cm  E♭  A♭   Gsus4  G  

This Crazy Roman-numeral sequence is more original than the Rolling Stone sequence above, but it's still very conventional. It's another classic T → SD → D functional sequence, with a few twists:
  • It's in a minor key.
  • After the starting T (tonic, Im), instead of moving straight to SD (subdominant), it first inserts a substitute T (♭III).
  • For its SD, rather than use the "primary" SD, IVm, it uses ♭VI .
  • It uses the classic Vsus4 → V "special effect" (Lesson 32: Suspended-4th Chords).


Here are some similarities and differences between these two example hook chord phrases:
  • How many chords: 3 or 4.
  • How long: 2 or 8 measures.
  • Repeated: A lot in both cases, but different ways of doing it.
  • Functional analysis: T → SD → D in both cases (with variations).


You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Analyze the hook chord phrases in songs you like; the examples in this lesson were just to help you to get started. Look for trends and differences, and unique ideas in particular songs.
  • Practice creating your own hook chord phrases, using the ideas you get from analyzing. Don't try to create a whole song from every hook chord phrase you create; save a collection of hook chord phrases, so you have several to choose from when you're ready to create a song.


Links to recordings:
  • Like A Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan: I used the version from The Essential Bob Dylan ($1.29 at Amazon last I checked).
  • Crazy by Gnarls Barkley: I used the YouTube video.


1-7 (Intro & Pitch) +
8-18 (Major Scale) +
19-29 (Chord Progressions) +
30-34 (Hook Chords) -
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35-41 (Written Notes) +
42-50 (Song Chorus) +

Detailed Contents

Get Future Lessons

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