What a cool topic.
How does Hooktheory fit into my songwriting process? The biggest element of Hooktheory “fitting into” or being a part of my process is that there is always a steady “Hooktheory wind in my musical sails”, guiding me and influencing me in almost everything I do musically, if that makes any sense.
I’ll try my best to explain with some anecdotes and examples
The first part of Hooktheory that really influenced my musical process is essentially the concepts we teach in the two books. In my simple brain this boils down to the idea of thinking about music in a key-neutral, functional way. [Side note: I was actually lucky enough to be taught this stuff first hand from Ryan, way before Hooktheory was a thing. Ryan’s musical brain is just so amazing. I’ve felt incredibly lucky over the years to have Ryan in my life (for many reasons!) but also to answer any musical question I have. In many ways, one of the core reasons I get so much joy out of working on Hooktheory is I feel like we are taking Ryans musical brain and making it so anyone in the world can access it. Both in terms of the information (e.g., the books) but also making it easy to see, hear, and create music in a key-neutral way (e.g., with Hookpad). ] end side note
The next part of Hooktheory that influences my songwriting process is I always play my instruments in a key neutral way, at least as often as I can. When I play music on my instrument, I almost NEVER think, e.g., “G -> D - > C”. I always think “I -> V -> IV”. I’ve been doing this since 2005 when I met Ryan. And for me, I feel this was a game changer.
The first awesome thing that happened as a result of this is after years of my brain thinking, e.g. I V IV and simultaneously hearing those chords in various keys, I started to be able to pick out that pattern in any song that has it. I think right around 2010, I started to be able to hear what the chord progression of simpler pop songs were and my aural abilities for hearing chord progressions just kept improving [Side note, I think I could never in a million years tell you what actual key the chords are in by listening. I can say with certainty i’m hearing, for example I -> vi -> ii -> IV, but I have no clue what key it is. It could be C am dm F. It could be G em am C, i don’t know until I try to match it on an instrument]
The second awesome consequence of trying to “play key neutral in my brain” is anytime I played a “new” chord, I always forced myself to “name it functionally”. So I would stop and take a minute to try and be like “OK, functionally what is this new chord here?” and that always led to a deeper intuition for what was going on - the how and why. [ Side note: from 2005-2009 Ryan and I shared an office in grad school. There were so many days I’d come in to work in the morning and be like “so Ryan. Last night I was playing W X Y which is I -> vi -> IV, right … and then I play this chord, Z, and its so awesome… what the HECK is Z functionally???” And Ryan would be like “ahhhh yes… that’s the five-of-five chord in first inversion (V6/V)” and then explain everything so clearly using the exact framework we later developed into the books and I’d have my mind blown. Those mornings were some of my very favorite.]
Basically, what I’ve decided over the years, is this: once you make the ah-ha realization that thinking key-neutral is the winning thing, and thinking functionally is the winning thing, you really end up with 30 mayyyybe 40 or so functional chords. And you start to get a sense of what the common patterns are, the less common ones, etc and you figure out how people make them fit together. More importantly, you start to figure out HOW YOU LIKE THEM TO FIT together. For example, I personally love love love using I6 and vi7 next to each other (Check out demo song Burma Superstar in Hookpad measures 25-28 which I wrote sometime around 2012). This pattern isn’t terribly common in popular songs, but I love it. Afterglow by Ed Sheeran did it recently and, of course, I just loved it.
Once I had this superpower of thinking key-neutral, I started grabbing little snippets here and there from things I liked and tucked them away for a rainy day for my own original work.
A great example of this, for me, is I remember vividly the first couple times I heard “Cant Stop The Feeling” by JT back in 2016. I mean this song absolutely crushed. It was so fun to listen to, so insanely clever-sounding musically, so masterfully produced and arranged by Max Martin. It was the global summer song for a reason that year.
But I remember specifically the break section before the chorus just blew …my … mind. It sounded so new, so “as clever as some of Michael Jackson’s / Madonna’s stuff” (that is what I thought literally), I just had to figure out what it was.
So what did I do? I Googled “cant stop the feeling hooktheory” and I got the TheoryTab where I could see it written out in a key-neutral way. This is an example where the chord progression has a lot of clever masterful stuff going on that I’d probably never in a million years have come up with, but I felt like with my Hooktheory functional toolkit, I could make sense of it. I had a way to name it and label it and categorize it in my brain and boom, now some of those chords are in my toolkit and I’ve weaved them into projects.
So I actually use the TheoryTab database a ton to see what going on somewhere when I can’t figure it out on my own.
I’ve talked a lot about chords here, but the key-neutral functional, “hooktheory way” has also massively influenced how I reason about melodies, and specifically how I think of chords in context of a melody or a melody in context of the chords. I now feel like, while I may not be able to compose a grammy-winning melody, I can almost always put something together that is pretty solid. It’s all because of Chapter 3 of our first book and Section 6.4 of our second book. This is stuff Ryan actually never taught me in the 2005-2010 era; the first time I was exposed to thinking functionally about melody was when Ryan, Dave and I had just started working on the concept of Hooktheory together.
But it has honestly taken me a lot longer to have the “key neutral / functional” stuff fully lock in for melody from an aural perspective. I mean, yes on paper and in our books and in Hookpad, I think functional melody is totally awesome and I get it, and it’s wonderful. But in terms of being able to hear, e.g., “yeah that person is singing scale degree 3 over the vi chord”. I’m definitely still not there. Or thinking “hey, you know, I bet scale degree 6 would sound really good sung it over this chord” - I’ve never been able to think that way with melody. I think the main reason is that I usually sing melody over the chords/bass when I’m creating my own stuff. Singing a melody is a much more natural human thing for me, so I don’t have to intellectualize it nearly as much. I can just “do it”. Where with guitar or piano, for example, I have to think about where my hands are going, what I’m playing.
So what do I do when I want to create a new piece of music, i.e., get the seed of new idea? It’s often a guitar in my hand + my voice for melody + voice memos on my iPhone recording (like you, @emeraldnext !). Sometimes I swap a two-octave midi controller for the guitar because that gets me into a different creative space. Sometimes I’ll start directly in Hookpad. I’ll often give myself little challenges to try and force my hand out of “doing the same thing I’ve already done”. For example, I love trying to do key changes or mode changes within a song in clever ways, just because it satisfies my intellectual curiosity and often leads to original stuff. For example,
(“Amsterdam” by Chris - Made With Hookpad.) is a key change that I just absolutely love so much. I would have never been able to come up with this without that “hooktheory wind in my sails” , which I personally think of as “now I have a little bit of Ryans musical brain" .
As a rule, if come up with something I like with guitar/piano/voice, I’ll generally move into Hookpad, since it gives me a simple way to edit, change rhythms, swap chords, experiment with different instruments, fine-tune melody notes, build out new sections. Then sometimes I’ll export the MIDI from Hookpad and pull it into GarageBand if I want to get even better sounds than I can get with Hookpad alone. This (make sure to unmute) is an example of something I pulled out of Hookpad and into GarageBand to allow myself a little more exploration with instrumentation. [Side note, my 2-year-old can listen to this clip on loop for several minutes dancing in the living room. Kinda nothing better than having your kid think your music is legit]
I’ll end by saying that most of the music I’ve created has only been heard by my wife, my daughter, and a few close friends. I have no desires to make music professionally. I pretty much do it just for me, for the love of doing it, and for the friendships / musical bonding / conversations just like this that it enables. You know that feeling you get when you look at old photos of good times and good people you love? I get a similar feeling going through my musical voice memos over the past 15 years and reliving all of the musical ideas I’ve come up with. I love it and it brings me a ton of joy.
I hope this gives some context to anyone that’s interested in how Hooktheory influences my songwriting process. Anyone that wants more insight or if you want me to expand on any of this, let me know.