Hooktheory: The Ultimate Resource to Music Theory
"We must see that music theory is not only about music, but about how people process it. To understand any art, we must look below its surface into the psychological details of its creation and absorption."
— Marvin Minsky
Back in 2013, a little company called Hooktheory was born, and, though they didn't know it yet, the lives of countless musicians would be forever changed. That is because Hooktheory took a topic that, through its sheer tediousness and density, most musicians never even bother to comprehensively learn, and Hooktheory ran with it.
Learning music theory is not so hard as it is involved. With its big Roman numerals, little Roman numerals, alphabetical keys that start on C (not A), and modes with complicated names like Lydian and Phrygian, music theory truly is a language all its own. And many people love learning languages, but most musicians HATE learning theory.
Hooktheory revolutionized the monotony of learning music theory by doing the opposite of whatever everyone else had done before – Hooktheory made it practical, and Hooktheory made it fun, approachable, and learnable.
Who Invented Hooktheory?
I have long believed that you never need to be the absolute best at one thing to be successful, but instead be the best at where a few of your life's passions meet. This could not be more true than with the three founders of Hooktheory, whose unique backgrounds collided in the simple asking of the question, "Why do musicians struggle to gain a deep understanding and intuition for how music works?"
Chris Anderson is a mastermind programmer and Hooktheory's lead architect while also a devoted guitarist and musician. Dave Carleton studied music in college and attended UC Berkeley to learn how to bring music and education together through technology. And finally, Ryan Miyakawa is a classically trained pianist who is addicted to blending his two passions: science and music.
Success thrives at the intersection of passion and vocation, and these founders are a testament to that. So it is little wonder how in 2013, they got the investment boost they needed from Berkley's most prestigious startup incubator: Skydeck.
How Hooktheory Works
Hooktheory is different, but how?
Hooktheory's success is unpinned by doubling down on what humans are drawn to – patterns (and the LOVE of fun colors).
Most musicians know the C major scale, and they know that C, Dm, Em, and F all "go together." But they falter when identifying the same progression in any other key. This is where Hooktheory's interactive color-coded bar system shines.
This interactive approach relies upon technology that makes using Hooktheory's tools fun. As you learn by doing, tedious theory lessons no longer feel like homework. Their system allows users to quickly reference the similarities in progressions across popular music, regardless of the keys the song is written in.
In practice, it allows us to quickly see how The Beatles' "Let It Be," Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," and Lady Gaga's "Edge of Glory" were all written using the same chord progression even when they were composed using different keys.
Hooktheory's learning curve is small, but everything comes together once you understand the color-coding system. Once you have a handle on that, you can immediately put this system into practice through the platform's Hookpad (which we discuss later on).
Hooktheory - Book I
Hooktheory I is the platform's introductory book designed to do two things: take somebody with no knowledge of theory to comprehensively understand its core concepts while also introducing the reader to Hooktheory's color-coded key system. Even though this is technically a book designed for beginners, it wastes no time diving into the more complex issues like inversions, Cadential chords, and more. And as always, it breaks it all down naturally and efficiently.
What I found most unique about Hooktheory I is how they presented the information. While most books teach you the foundational knowledge before connecting the dots, Hooktheory immediately jumps to how each part of a song relates to the others and their role in your music. It makes you excited and eager to learn the more intricate threads by merely knowing everything's potential.
Anyone looking into the Hookpad app should also be looking into this book. Sure, some of you have already mastered the theory and may not find as much value in that aspect of this book, but learning the color-coded system used by the platform's more powerful tools is an absolute must. By focusing on the relative scale degrees instead of the chords' absolute notation, it is easy for students to visualize how theory and music are connected.
Short answer? It's the "music theory book you'll love"...
Hooktheory - Book II
The Hooktheory I book arms musicians with a theoretical knowledge base needed to immediately write songs. Hooktheory Book II takes this to the next level and caters to those looking to master music theory and its applications.
"Hooktheory II begins right where Hooktheory I left off. You'll learn about seventh chords, embellishments, secondary chords, minor harmony, modes, modal mixture, and more; and you'll do so with the same fun, easy-to-understand approach we used in Hooktheory I, with its emphasis on practical usage demonstrated with rich examples from real songs."
Making secondary chords and seventh chords sound interesting is no easy task, but as with most things Hooktheory does, how they do it makes it fun and engaging. Pairing their color-coded key system with progressions and chord structures in recognizable music makes it easy to see all you are learning live in action.
The best part of Hooktheory II is how much more in-depth the quizzes and songwriting exercises are along the way. This helps, as the content covered in this book is far more advanced than in the previous.
Another great part of this book is the 'Embellishment' section that digs deep into using music theory to add an extra flair to your songwriting through creative techniques. This section also expands upon classical chord structures while discussing 9th, 11th and even add9 chords.
Long story short, this section is any jazz player's paradise.
What is Hookpad?
Hookpad is the real powerhouse behind the entire Hooktheory platform. All of the relative chord progressions, color-coding systems, and excitement for songwriting leads directly to what is described as their 'intelligent musical sketchpad.' While this is true, I prefer to simply call it the most potent songwriting tool ever brought to market.
And here's why...
The ease of use and linear methods of constructing chords and melodies demystifies the songwriting process. Being able to visualize in color, not Roman numerals, how the harmonies are progressing is game-changing. It identifies which chords come next in a progression and serves to commit theoretical knowledge to muscle memory.
So now, let's get our hands dirty and see this powerful tool in action...
How to Use Hooktheory’s Hookpad
Hookpad is a powerful tool that can seem overwhelming when you first open it up, but working through the steps, from start to finish, will quickly reveal that it's all quite intuitive.
Hookpad shines through its charmingly simple interface that harnesses a large amount of functionality under the hood. This allows you to get the most out of this powerful tool with only a slight amount of familiarity with the platform.
The Basic User Interface: This clean and straightforward GUI will look familiar to anyone who has worked their way through the Hooktheory I and II books. Plus, its signature palette of primary and secondary colors makes it very easy on the eyes.
The available notes in the scale, tempo adjustments, the song's key, and more are all easy to reference at the top of the screen. All you need is within arms reach without having to get bogged down with unnecessary bells and whistles.
Creating The Chords: Generating chord progressions could not be easier with Hookapd's intuitive software. Within minutes, I had a simple eight-bar loop composed of a classic progression in my favorite key: C minor.
Adjusting the timing and placement of different chords is easy as well, and Hookpad comes with a litany of hotkeys and cue commands to make this process even simpler. Adjusting chord embellishments also takes a few guided clicks, but simplicity allows us to get the most out of even the most basic features.
A Bit of Embellishment: But a four-bar progression looped twice over will get boring fairly quickly, and I wanted to extend its life by adding a bit of variety. Using the Magic Chord feature, I could quickly pull out a similar chord whose embellishment provided some change at the sixth bar's end.
Magic Chord's simplicity belies its incredible power, and a massive amount of information is packed into its small, hidden interface. It shows the scale degree, the chord itself, and beneath all that, that chord's score. This score corresponds to the chord's popularity within similar chord progressions used in popular music and can help generate market-tested harmonies that simply work!
Writing the Melody: The color-coded system transitions seamlessly when it's time to compose a melody. While melody writing is not as intuitive as is writing chord progressions, learning the key commands and hotkeys exponentially speed up this step. Better yet, it supports MIDI controllers (which is almost unheard of in browser-based apps!)
Unpacking the Guide feature allows for even more creative ideas as it shows which notes of the melody are stable and unstable atop the chords. By enabling the Guide, I created some unstable tension in the eighth bar that helps create tension and interestingly resolve the melody’s loop.
Instrumentation: Standard piano sounds are a great way to start noodling with chord progressions and melodies. But eventually, you will want to begin to contextualize your song, which is best done through varying its instrumentation.
The large bank of instruments allows you to change those pianos into swelling synth pads, orchestral chords, and everything in between. And the same goes for lead sounds, as they have acid squelches, mallets, and even vocal hymns. And beneath it all, it has a small collection of percussion banks that help add rhythm and groove.
Voices: After the core progression and melody have been composed, it will be time to start working on the other song elements: bass lines, pedal notes, or supplementary melodies and harmonies.
This can all be done by voicing, which enables you to overlay different elements atop the chords. The same features are accessible here as when composing the original melody, such as the Magic Bass feature. The only difference between Magic Chords and Bass is that the latter suggests monophonic progressions to accompany the chords to create exciting and compelling low-end sequences.
Exporting: Exporting is always the most exciting part of the project, and the wealth of options Hookpad offers makes the process that much more so. Whether you want your song rendered as a MIDI file, standard notation, or an audio file, Hookpad has got you.
And I say again, the fact that you can do this all in a browser-based app is unheard of!
Already, this is enough to get you up to speed, harnessing most of the power within this fantastic tool. Still, it's the smaller details and features we need to focus on that really make Hookpad an essential for any songwriter – not just producers:
Drag & Drop MIDI Exporting: Being able to compose a chord progression or melody in Hookpad and instantly be able to drop it into your DAW is a game-changer. The process is so fast that it almost feels like an extension of your DAW.
Browser-Based: It doesn't take up any room on your hard drive! It's wild that such a workhorse of a tool can be done entirely in the browser. It even lets you save your work in case you accidentally refresh the page.
Magic Chord: Hookpad's chord AI is there to hold your hand as you begin branching off into more complex chord structures. The magic chord pallet provides suggestions. Not only that, but each recommendation is given a score that corresponds to how frequently they're used in popular music.
Magic Bass: It's the same as with the chords, but only for bass. Too often, producers oversimplify their bass lines, which lead to emotionless and predictable patterns, but Hookpad's Magic Bass palette remedies that in only a few clicks.
Lyrics: This may seem like a minor, or even unused feature, for many producers, but sketching lyrics directly in the app helps streamline this step of the creative process. Songwriting requires many different things coming together to pull off successfully, and anything you can do to consolidate those parts is a true blessing.
Hooktheory vs. The Competition
Learning music production can be a costly and rewarding endeavor. Acquiring studio gear and plugins makes up a hefty financial investment, but learning theory will take up the most significant investment of your time (our most precious resource). Producers already have a lot on their plate, so it's essential for those looking to learn music theory to choose the educational option that gets them where they want to be the fastest!
But the most obvious places to learn theory may not always be the best ones. Ableton has a few resources to learn theory, but you may quickly see that education is not truly their forte (and that's okay!).
And don't even get me started on YouTube – We say it all the time to students of the Hyperbits Masterclass, but YouTube only gets you so far, and you certainly get what you pay for.
Music theory is a multifaceted topic, and if what you're learning isn't holistic and comprehensive, essential information is guaranteed to slip through your understanding.
That's why Hooktheory is different. It is holistic, comprehensive, and it simply works. Compared to many other learning platforms, Hooktheory costs pennies on the dollar and teaches you the content quicker than anyone else. It truly is a no-brainer.
Hooktheory’s Free Resources
Hooktheory I and II both cost but a few dollars, and access to Hookpad comes with a monthly subscription for some of the app's better features, but even those without a penny to spare can find a ton of value hidden on this site.
So let's explore a few of the best free resources at your disposal:
Trends: Hooktheory's Trends page is a fantastic resource that helps contextualize all of the chord progressions you have heard about. It acts like a chord-progression road map (pictured above), allowing you to select chords to reveal the best options on where to take the progressions next. It bases its decisions upon how similar chords have been used in popular music over the past two decades.
From there, you can open up the chord progressions of those famous songs directly in Hookpad to further help dissect why the music is working like it does.
TheoryTab: This feature allows you to see, in terms of composition, what's going on underneath the hood of thousands of popular songs. Theorytab then analyzes a handful of metrics to see how the song in question works to know where this song sits in melodic complexity, chord inversion novelty, and other metrics.
The best part is that they feature an absolute MEGA number of popular dance records that are tough to find anywhere else online. They even have the likes of The M Machine, Porter Robinson, and Kill The Noise.
Check out the analysis of the dance classic 'Illmerica' by Wolfgang Gardner.
Cheat Sheet: This one is quick and easy. It's a quickfire way to reference some of the most popular chord progression in each key. Cheat Sheet allows you to either directly download the world's most popular chord progressions in MIDI form or open them up to be a bit more hands-on.
Video Resources: Hooktheory has invested a lot of time making sure you get the most out of their platform, which is evident through their extensive selection of video guides and tutorials on their site. These videos include everything from the basics of using Hookpad to arranging a song and how to compose a melody that looks like a Christmas tree!
Does Hooktheory Work?
The message up until now should be simple; 'We love Hooktheory.' We often recommend it to students of the Hyperbits Masterclass, though it's not like we need to – they are often chatting on our Facebook page among each other about the benefits and strides they've made using the platform on their own.
And it appears like the Hyperbits family aren't the only ones who have made musical strides or have found innovative ways to use this platform...
You may recognize the name John August, credited for working on films such as Big Fish and Johnny Depp's Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. But did you know he uses Hooktheory while on set?
John August:... "Since I've been working on the musical, I'll often look over at the music department, and they're figuring out how to move from this key to this key. And they have a grammar and a way of talking about it that's actually useful in daily life.
So what Hooktheory does is take a look at the pop songs, mostly things of the last 10 or 20 years, and they'll give you these short little 15 second snippets that will break down what the chords are and then how the melody fits into those chords... It's very good and proscriptive [but it's not] saying "Well, you can't ever do this." It's saying these are the choices that make it easier. And this is why if you go to this cadence chord you're going to find it much easier to start your next phrase"
In closing, I truly feel as if you are hamstringing your productions and songwriting if you are not using Hooktheory in some way, shape, or form. The platform is fluid and intuitive enough to fit seamlessly into your workflow, and it opens up so many creative doors.
When more and more AI tools are writing entire songs for producers, Hooktheory keeps the direction and control in your hands while guiding you along the way. We love Hooktheory, and so do our students, and I'm sure you will too.
We say this all the time in the Hyperbits Masterclass, but music production is damn hard; songwriting is only one of many elements producers must be phenomenal at to succeed in this industry. That is why we invented the Hyperbits Masterclass, to be a comprehensive and holistic approach to learning how to make music that is as good, if not better, than the artists you look up to.