Terms such as hook and riff are really useful as they allow us to think and to talk about the parts of our music. The problem is that without a clear definition, these terms tend to be a little hazy, especially amongst newcomers in music theory.
In this lesson we’re having an in-depth look at hooks and riffs so we can understand what they are and how they impact our music.
So what’s the difference between a hook and a riff? The riff is a short and catchy melodic idea and it recurs so often that it gives character and structure to a song. The hook is any part of a song that is meant to grab the listener’s attention. The hook is also catchy but it doesn’t recur as often so that it makes a greater impact when it turns up.
Now let’s look deeper at riffs and hooks and learn from some great song examples.
What is a Riff in Music?
Almost all of music of any style is composed of smaller parts that come together to make a bigger whole. These parts can be broken down further and further into shorter and shorter musical ideas.
The Riff is one particular type of short musical idea that’s often used in rock and metal music as well as in funk, latin and jazz. Typically, a riff displays these characteristics:
- The riff starts the song and remains a fundamental element in it,
- It’s repeated all throughout or recurs frequently as the chorus (or a part of it),
- It consists of a cycle of 2 to 4 bars (but sometimes more or less),
- Melodically quite simple and mostly driven by the rhythm (often beginning on an upbeat),
- Harmonically simple: normally beginning on tonic and ending on the dominant (creating a seamless cycle of tonic to dominant through the repetitions),
- Other musical ideas can be derived from it,
- In rock and metal music, the riff is usually played by the electric guitar on the lower strings (often in power chords). In other genres it can also be played by keyboards, orchestral strings and brass.
All in all, the riff is such a prominent element of the song that it becomes essential to its character and, very importantly, to its structure. Popular riffs tend to become what a song is known for.
Let’s look and listen to some examples to get a first hand experience for riffs. The examples that are written for the guitar include guitar tab.
Analyzing Popular Riffs
The Kinks: You Really Got Me Now
This song from 1964 is entirely based on its riff. The riff not only begins the song but keeps going all throughout. Even the vocal line is based on it.
When a musical idea is repeated so persistently it’s also known as an ostinato. So in this example, the riff is also an ostinato because it’s repeated continuously all along.
The riff is absolutely integral to the song. In fact, there’s no traditional chord progression to speak of. It’s just this 1-bar riff. A little variety comes in verse 2 as the riff goes up by a step and then in the chorus as it goes up by 5 steps.
As you listen to the song, notice that the vocal line in the chorus is practically the riff itself and that the guitar solo is accompanied by the riff too.
Here’s a link to the song on YouTube. (Links in this lesson open a new tab).
Muddy Waters: Mannish Boy
Here is another example of an ostinato/riff that is repeated all throughout. After a short introduction with the guitar imitating the singing, this 1-bar riff comes in and never lets go.
The silent moment within the riff is essential as that’s where the voice sings. So the structure of the song is simply the ‘conversation’ going on between the recurring guitar riff and the vocal line.
So the riff is not just prominent but essential to the character and the structure of the song. In this example, like the previous one, we can almost say that the riff is the song.
Coolio: Gangsta’s Paradise
This rap hit from 1995 features this 2-bar riff almost all throughout. It begins the song, accompanies the verses, the chorus and the bridge. The simplicity of the recurring idea keeps the song going, makes it coherent and in my opinion, makes it memorable.
There are 2 short moments where riff is not heard: just after the first chorus and at the very end. As you listen to the song notice that because we expect to hear it, its absence makes an emotional impact.
Led Zeppelin: Whole Lotta Love
This song from 1969 is composed of 3 sections almost like a classical ABA form. First, we get this riff accompanying a couple of verses and choruses.
Then we get a middle section consisting of sound effects and a guitar solo, and finally a return to the riff as a basis for the verse and the chorus. The return of the riff is a return to something extremely familiar because we heard it so many times.
Derek and the Dominos: Layla
This song from 1970 is quite unique as it’s composed of 2 big sections (rather than the more common 3). The first section is known for this riff and it’s a great favorite amongst guitarists.
Once again, it’s a short and catchy melodic idea and almost all the musical material of this section come from it.
As you listen to the song (from the link below), notice how the second section provides contrast in a variety of ways:
- The riff is abandoned for some new ideas,
- The piano is more prominent than before,
- It’s instrumental not sung.
The Rolling Stones: Satisfaction
This riff from 1965 is another popular one. This time, the riff is not repeated all throughout the song like an ostinato. Instead, it begins the song and then reappears as accompaniment to the chorus.
As is normal with these examples that we’ve seen, notice how seamless the repetitions of a riff are. There are no breaks but a continuous cycle from one to the next.
AC/DC: Back in Black
This 4-bar riff begins the song and keeps going as it becomes accompaniment for the verse. This time it’s not part of the chorus. For that we get an entirely new riff.
As you listen to the song notice how the accompaniment to Angus Young’s guitar solo at around the 1:50 mark can be thought of a 3rd riff.
However, if you listen closely you’ll realize that it’s really based on two parts gelled together: a rhythmic idea from riff 1 (the verses) and a melodic idea from riff 2 (the chorus).
This song also shows us that a song is not restricted to 1 riff. As we’ll see later in this article, a song can have several riffs working together.
Jimmy Forrest: Night Train
Riffs are also a staple in jazz music. Many songs are built around a riff that serves as a basis for improvisation. Here is a lovely example from Jimmy Forrest’s ‘Night Train’ (from 1952).
Thes riff works almost like an instrumental chorus that comes back after every improvisation.
Shorty Rogers: That’s What I’m Talkin’ About
Here’s a final example of a riff, this one also in a Jazz classic. Very similar to the one above, the role of this riff is that of a ‘theme’ that serves as a refrain and a basis for improvisation.
Most of these examples feature songs that have only one riff. It can get more complex than that as songs can have two or more riffs. The characteristics of these riffs are the same: short 2 to 4 bar ideas repeated for some time.
The only difference is that they are played one after another as sections of the same song.
We’ve seen a good example in AC/DC’s Back in Black. Another popular example is Enter Sandman by Metallica – a song built on several heavy riffs. Another is Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne, featuring a riff for the introduction, another for the verse, and yet another for the chorus.
In conclusion, the riff is a short idea that provides the song with most of its musical material. As these examples have shown us, a song:
- Can be based entirely on a riff that’s repeated all throughout a song,
- Can begin with the riff that comes back after some other section/s,
- Can be based on several riffs.
What is a Hook in Music?
Have you ever asked someone something like “Do you know that song… you know the one that goes ‘na na na nana’?” Well, what you sang there is most probably the hook. That part stands out so much that it’s what you remembered the song by, and expect others to the same.
As the word itself suggests, the hook is any part of a song that grabs our attention and sticks in our memory. The term, of course, is a metaphor from fishing where the hook is meant to lure and catch fish. In a similar way, the hook ‘catches the ear’ and gets the audience involved.
The hook is meant to be catchy, fun and easy to remember so that it gets its listeners engaged. Anything from a short tune to an entire chorus can be the hook. If it stands out from the rest and makes people sing or dance, it’s a hook.
Since it stands out so much, the hook is what a song tends to become known for the most. Of course, what is fun and easy to remember can be different for different listeners but if you’ve ever felt like you can’t get some tune out of your head, you got hooked!
The term is especially used in pop, R&B, hip-hop and dance music and most hits on the radio today tend to have at least one hook. There are no rules of course, so not every song has one and in particularly catchy songs there can even be more than 1 hook.
A hook can be similar to a riff in that it can be a short, catchy musical idea. But an important difference between the hook and the riff is that while the riff is repeated very often, the hook normally isn’t. This is so that when it does show up at some point in the music, it makes an even greater impact.
Analyzing Popular Hooks
There are many ways in which a hook can be created but the 3 general types are:
- Rhythmic hooks: based on a catchy rhythm,
- Melodic hooks: based on a catchy melody,
- Lyrical hooks: based on a catchy phrase or verse.
Of course, these kinds of hooks can be mixed, matched and combined in a many ways. We can even have more types as some hooks are long while some are short. Some are instrumental while some are sung. Some appear in the chorus, some in the verse and others in the bridge.
The variety is endless so the best thing to do is to learn from some great examples.
Caesars Palace – Jerk it Out
Let’s begin with a melodic hook that immediately grabs the ear. The hook is the instrumental melody that starts the song and acts as a fill-in in between sung verses.
Notice that as opposed to many other examples we’ll look at at, this hook is not part of the chorus and is never sung. It’s always played by the keys.
P!nk: So What
Here’s another example of a hook that begins the song. This one starts off as instrumental but after that it’s mostly sung. What’s really interesting is that since it’s so prominent, it’s practically also a riff for this section.
Similar to our first example, this hook-riff is not part of the chorus. As you listen to it, notice that as from the 1:30 mark we don’t get to hear it again until the very last few seconds.
Instead we get chorus – bridge – chorus and because of this, the song has a subtle change of mood. The “I don’t care” attitude (in the parts with the riff) changes into an “I actually do care” sentiment.
Pharrell Williams: Happy
While every part of this song is catchy in its own way, it’s the chorus that seems to really hook us in this hit from 2013. This is an interesting example because compared to most others, it’s quite complex.
Its catchiness comes from a variety of elements all working together at the same time. We get the word “Happy” sung with long notes, the lines that begin with “Clap along if you feel..” over it, the bass line and a distinct rhythm played by the drums.
This hook is rhythmic, melodic and lyrical all at the same time.
Neil Diamond: Sweet Caroline
Our next example is more typical of many songs: the hook is the chorus and it features the song title in the lyrics. What hooks us (and what the song is known for) is this melody in the chorus.
This melodic hook is memorable not just because it’s catchy but because the verses that come before and after it are softer and unassuming. What they do is slowly build up to the chorus, where the story (both lyrically and musically) becomes clear.
All in all, the song is written in such a way to make the chorus have the greatest impact. In short, it hooks us!
Ed Sheeran: Perfect
Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’ from 2017 has a similar effect in that the chorus makes such an impact after a gradual build up.
We first get a verse that is almost spoken like a soft rap or a recitative. Then, a pre-chorus that is a little more melodic and uplifting that finally leads to the chorus – sung with a beautiful melody (with a wider range and more notes too).
The result? It hooks us as a moment of high emotional intensity! This hook is another example of a combination of melody, lyric and rhythm.
Here’s how to follow along the song:
- Verse: begins with “I found a love”
- Pre-chorus: begins with “Cause we were just kids”
- Chorus: begins with “Baby, I’m dancing in the dark”
Aretha Franklin: Respect
This classic from 1967 is an exciting song all throughout but it’s the lyrical hook that it’s known for. In the version linked below, the hook is at around the 1:54 mark with the immortal lyric spelling out the word ‘respect’:
R – E – S – P – E – C – T,
Find out what it means to me,
R – E – S – P – E – C – T,
Take care of TCB.
So in this example, the hook is not at the beginning, not in the verses, not in any instrumental part and not in the chorus. It’s a little bridge just before the end.
The Kinks: Lola
Lola by the Kinks is a similar example of a lyrical (and melodic) hook with the title of the song literally spelled out. What the song is mostly remembered by is the catchy lyric:
“Lo – lo – lo – lo – Lola
L – O – L – A – Lola”
Of course, the melody plays a role too but it’s mostly the spelling out of the song title that produces the hook.
Guns N’ Roses: Paradise City
Here’s another example of a lyrical hook from Paradise City (released in 1987). This one is also part of the chorus and as is often the case, the title of the song is part of it.
This is a lyrical hook because it very clearly depends on the lyrics. The chorus is pretty much spoken rather than sung:
Take me down to the paradise city
where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
Oh won’t you please take me home?
Other Lyrical Hooks
Very often lyrical hooks are also the title of the song. This makes sense: a particular phrase or word play makes both a great hook and a great title for a song.
Here are three great examples. All of them have the hook as part of the chorus:
- YMCA by The Village People
- Stop! In the Name of Love by The Supremes
- Money, Money, Money by Abba
Other examples of these kind of lyrical hooks are songs with girls’ names. Examples are in the hundreds! Here are just a few that come to mind:
- Barbara Ann by The Beach Boys
- Angie by The Rolling Stones
- Michelle by The Beatles (as well as Julia and several others)
- Delilah by Tom Jones
- and of course: Lola, Layla and Sweet Caroline which we’ve already seen in this lesson.
Another kind of lyrical hook is the one that consists of “Ohs” and “Ahs” and other vocalizations. Think about for example:
- She Loves You by The Beatles – Where would the song be without those famous “Yeah, yeah yeah’s”?
- Stayin’ Alive by The Bee Gees – The hook would be nowhere as effective without those ‘Ahs’ in: “Ah, ah, ah, ah! Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive”
- Who Let the Dogs Out? by Baha Men – Think of the barking “who, who, who, who, who?” effect.
Queen & David Bowie: Under Pressure
The hook in this song from 1981 is this riff played by the bass. This is a perfect example of a rhythmic hook. While the melodic descent does have a role, it’s clearly the rhythm that’s driving it forward.
As we’ve seen earlier, riffs are mostly driven by the rhythm and melodically they’re kept quite simple. Most examples of riffs that we discussed are also examples of rhythmic hooks!
We looked at many examples and discussed lots of details so let’s have a brief summary of the differences between the hook and the riff.
The riff is a short, melodic and rhythmic idea of a few bars and it is prominent enough to influence the structure and character of a song. It often begins the song but soon after becomes accompaniment.
The hook is any part of the song that is meant to grab the attention of its listeners. Like the riff, it can be short but it can also be an entire verse or chorus. Unlike the riff, the hook isn’t as prominent throughout the song so that it has a greater impact when it finally does show up.
Is the Chorus the same as Hook? Not always. As we’ve seen in this lesson the hook is any part of the song that is intended to catch the listener’s attention. It can be the entire chorus, just a part of it or something else altogether.
Is a Lick the same as a Hook? No. A lick is a simple, short and basic melody. Licks can be known clichés like the basic melodic patterns used in blues, jazz and classical music. And they can also be quite new and original. In this case a lick can be a hook if it grabs attention and it can be a riff if it becomes a notable element of the song.