Pop music requires strong hooks to sell. Writers in the music industry take great care to massage a song’s hooks, make them immediately memorable, but unique enough to feel fresh. In my own quest to strengthen my hooks, I’ve noticed some patterns. I’ve started listening to the radio like a music theorist, paying attention to the U.S. Mainstream Top 40 charts. A lot of elements come together to build up to and support the hook, but this article is about the hook melody itself. Let’s take a look at a current Top 10 hit, Talk Dirty to Me by Jason Derulo feat 2 Chainz.
This song has a lot of repeating notes, and this felt really familiar to me. In fact the idea of repeating notes has been around since Gregorian Chant, and those monks probably borrowed the idea from somebody else. To quote the article, “In Gregorian chant, each mode has its own dominant, or reciting tone. In most modes this is on the fifth above the final, but in some modes it is a fourth, or even a third, above the final [the tonal center of what we now call the key].” In chant, the reciting tone is used to recite text, like a psalm, to give it a little more umph, to make people listen. You hear Taylor Swift use this device in most of her songs, like Love Story and We are Never Ever Getting Back Together.
“In Gregorian chant, each mode has its own dominant, or reciting tone. In most modes this is on the fifth above the final, but in some modes it is a fourth, or even a third, above the final.”
My only explanation for the connection between Chant and 21st Century pop music, is that we have been conditioned to hear repeated notes and get a little excited, sometimes a little edgy. It’s a trigger to give us the sense that something important is being said. It also makes us crave a resolution, a sonic resting place. The hook of the Jason Derulo song, is 90% C# (the dominant, fifth scale degree, of the key), which creates tension and highlights the lyric: “Been around the world, don’t speak the language; but your booty don’t need explainin’. All I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me.” No, this isn’t a psalm. The repeating note grabs the listener’s attention, and doesn’t let go until they feel they’re home with the Balkan Beat Box sample. This builds just enough tension to be slightly aerobic, to give the listener the feeling of ascending a roller coaster.
If we go down the list of Top 10 current hits, this device is used in the hooks of both Pharrell Williams’ Happy and Katy Perry’s Dark Horse. Repeating notes aren’t just for hooks. You can hear them in verses, prechoruses, and bridges, anyplace the songwriter is trying to build tension. Simple doesn’t have to be dull. That’s where the craft comes in. Good songwriters make the tension last long enough to pull the listener towards something satisfying. Rhythm, instrumentation under the melody, and dynamics can add energy and direction to this. If the energy isn’t behind the repeated note, it’s simply (in the purest sense of the word) monotonous.
So, it appears 8th Century compositional techniques are alive and kicking, and none of us should be afraid of repeating ourselves.