Classical composers almost never talk about the hook. Why?
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I’ve put a good deal of thought over the years into listing the ways that Classical music and pop music are similar. That activity has always been a source of fascination for me, because without a doubt there are far more similarities than differences. As I often note, the most obvious distinction between the two genres is performance style. But there is another notable difference: you almost never hear the word “hook” used in reference to Classical music. So why does the hook rise to such prominence in pop music genres?
The truth is that Classical music is full of hooks, if by hook we mean a short fragment of music that’s catchy and memorable, and contributes to bringing audiences back time and time again. But composers of Classical music don’t often talk about the hook, and the concept of the hook is not particularly crucial to the success of, say, a symphony. Why is that?
The main reason is the length of a typical pop song compared to the length of a Classical work. Pop songs tend to be 4-5 minutes in length. Classical works are often a fair bit longer. In the case of symphonies, you might be listening to the same piece for almost an hour.
So how does the length of a piece of music have anything to do with a hook? Traditionally, certainly in the classical music of Europe and then North America, a composer did two things:
- Create a couple of catchy melodies.
- Develop those melodies into a much larger piece of music.
It’s that second stage, the “develop” part, that comprises the bulk of a symphony. Many people can hum the first few iconic bars of the theme for “2001: A Space Odyssey” (talk about a hook!), but few people know that the entire work lasted for a half hour. In that piece, the composer (Richard Strauss) took that famous 3-note trumpet figure and developed it. Developing an idea means taking it apart, creating new melodies that incorporate the original melody, perhaps move it to different keys, interlace it with other melodies, and so on. Somewhere in the midst of all of that, a climactic moment will happen, a spot where you feel like you’ve reached the mountaintop.
All that “developing” and moving toward a climactic moment is what the bulk of most Classical works are. It’s what connoisseurs of Classical music enjoy about the genre. But developing ideas in this way takes time. And time is the one thing that pop music songwriter doesn’t really have. In pop music, the musical journey starts and ends within 5 minutes. In that short space of time, a listener needs to feel that they’ve experienced a complete musical journey.
So pop songs do the next best thing: they create musical excitement in shorthand fashion. How do they do that?
- Create a short, memorable, catchy musical fragment — a hook.
- Place a climactic moment in the song chorus.
Not every song needs a hook, and the ones that don’t necessarily need one are the songs that show a strong sense of development in some song component over its 4-5 minute span. So if your song has a strong lyric that takes the listener on a journey of sorts, the hook becomes less important. The same is true for songs with great melodic structure.
In any case, all music whether a 45-minute symphony or a 4-minute pop song, need to convey the sense that a musical journey has taken place. But in the case of the 4-minute pop song, that’s a pretty short journey, and you need to work quickly. That’s how the hook has risen to be such a prominent component of pop music.
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