Screenwriter John August’s Hooktheory Review

A composition of headphones, a notebook, a pencil, a radio microphone, and a cup of coffee arranged on white and brown construction paper.

I recently stumbled across John August‘s podcast, ScriptNotes, and thought this was worth sharing. For those of you who don’t know who John is, he’s the screenwriter behind Charlie’s Angels, Go, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate factory (the one with Johnny Depp, not Gene Wilder) and bunch of stuff you’ve almost certainly heard of.

It turns out he’s a Hooktheory fan.

…And he wrote a really nice review that made me smile. Thanks John! (if you’re into screenwriting and movies check out his podcast).

John August: …The idea of the book is to talk through music theory in terms of how pop music is built. And a part of me bristles at the thought of [this] because I always rip on screenwriting theory books, because I find those frustrating… but with music I’m giving it a pass because … there is actual logic behind music. There’s a reason why certain chord progressions are easy and certain chord progressions are really tough to make work. And there are reasons why you find stuff in between.

And 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 pop songs, mostly things of the last 10 or 20 years, and they’ll give you these little short 15 second snippets that will break down what the chords are and then how the melody fits into those chords. And by chords they’re not talking C, F, G, but they’re talking relative chords. So they’re teaching you sort of how relative chords work… and the natural ways that you can move from one chord to the next chord, and why certain things fit together really easily and certain things are harder.

And it’s very good and proscriptive [but it’s not] saying, like, “Well, you can’t ever do this.” It’s saying these are 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.

So it’s very, very smart. A really good use of the iPad because it’s the kind of thing that would be almost impossible to talk about in a meaningful way with a normal conventionally printed book. If you didn’t have those little examples right in front of you that you could play back through and see, it really wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

So I read through this and I found myself very intellectually satisfied because it answered a lot of those questions that I’ve always had about how music works. And also frustrated because I felt like this is stuff that I should have been taught in high school. This isn’t Music 101 stuff, but like once I knew how to play an instrument, once I knew how to play piano past a certain point, someone should have taught me how this stuff works, because a lot of things just make much more sense now.”

Read the first chapter of our music theory book now.


25 responses to “Screenwriter John August’s Hooktheory Review”

  1. Bsinclair Avatar

    Nice article, but don’t you think you should at least mention Axis of Awesome since they obviously inspired you to pursue this whole line of inquiry?

    1. Dave Avatar

      Axis of Awesome’s video was a really great way of showing people the popularity of a particular chord progression, but they’re hardly the first group to note the heavy use of I V vi IV in popular music. The musical world is filled with songs with self-referential lyrics poking fun at the popularity and overuse of certain chord progressions.

      NOFX’s Please Play This Song On the Radio is an obvious one (it uses the same chords lampooned by Axis of Awesome – I V vi IV).

      it was released in 1992.

      Those Magic Changes in the musical Grease made fun of the progression I vi IV V, a slight variation of I V iv IV that was really really popular in the 1950’s.—grease

      I do want to emphasize that our “line of inquiry” is not about listing a bunch of common chord progressions and telling people to use those in their music. A lot of what we do involves discussing how chords function in different contexts, their tendencies, and how songwriters use this knowledge to write great sounding music.

      It’s an approach that’s not all that dissimilar from the way serious classical music students study music (it’s called the study of Harmony). We just like to think we’ve made it a whole lot more approachable.

  2. Alexis Zazueta Avatar
    Alexis Zazueta

    When I have been assigned to buy
    Hooktheory, it was difficult to use at first. I did not know where to go to
    find certain chapters, how to use it and was difficult to understand. Throughout
    these past months, Hooktheory has changed and developed in a positive manner.
    The chapters are easier to follow and well explained on each lesson. These
    chapters have more examples after a good explanation. It helps to have a lesson
    with visual and hearing aids. One specific thing that I like in Hooktheory is Trends.
    This allows me to see how the chords are being used in the songs I like to
    listen to. This also lets me to build my own progression, be aware of which
    chords make sense and puts me to think about which chords I use. This is good
    practice after I have read a certain chapter, to put my knowledge to the test.
    A fun activity that I was not aware was the EarTrain. This really makes you
    think hard about the chords and makes you focus on the sounds. It is good
    practice and yet it is a fun activity to participate in.

  3. Xurtio Xaos Avatar
    Xurtio Xaos

    I’d really like to see this augmented to include, for instnace, the harmonic minor scale, so that I could see what songs have em -> cm progression.

  4. Tannaz Eghtesadi Avatar
    Tannaz Eghtesadi

    The section “Harmony 2” in Hooktheory is yet another chapter that shows the organization and easy understanding of the given topic. Hooktheory really shows everyone at any level the simplicity of reading, testing yourself, and understanding the material. The Harmony 2 sections clearly describe the difference between the “ii” chord and the “iii” chord. There are illustrations and statistics that show when which chord follows for example a “ii” chord. In summary, the text and pictures really put together the learning outcome of the given topic. I feel that almost anyone is able to grasp the information by reading through the text with the help of charts and videos on Hooktheory.

  5. Cindi Parkinson Avatar

    Hook theory has always been a great text. It’s usually simpler to
    read, and it’s nice to test oneself. In the Chapter Harmony 2, it describes the
    difference between the “ii” chord” and “iii” chord. The way the harmony 2
    chapter could be improved is to be more comprehensive in the writing. The
    material could explain easier. Would be helpful if they included a interactive
    game; memorization, flash card type games at the parts it wants us to know and
    really understand. In the past, music sites have helped me really improved when
    I was able to recognize a key signature that came up on the screen.

    What I do love is that it did include quizzes. These are most helpful especially
    since they are going to be on the test. And the music choice examples were

  6. Kerry Fitzgerald Avatar
    Kerry Fitzgerald

    The “Harmony 2” chapter is well made. I thought it was organized very well and had great
    supporting material. The material was presented in a fairly simple way and was accompanied by popular songs that
    the majority of people would recognize. Being able to recognize the sample song facilitates a higher degree of
    learning because the student can directly relate to the material (like I did.) Also, the quizzes at the end of each section were helpful. They were perfect questions that caused me to think critically and apply the information previously learned.
    Overall, the “Harmony 2” chapter is effective.

  7. cjamesf05 Avatar

    The Harmony ii chapter I enjoyed. It was very informative and helps you learn at a faster rate. After reading the chapter there was much questions that I feel needed to be asked to elaborate on the chapter. I don’t like how the answers are there already after u]you read the questions. I feel that the questions answers should be at the end of the chapter so it makes you go back and think about the answers you put down, because you can just look at the answers instead of critically thinking about the question.

  8. Chinoster Avatar

    As I read The Harmony ii chapter 1, I was captivated by how informative this book really is. I enjoy how before continuing to the next section, it post a question in order to check for understanding before proceeding to the next section. I also like how it provides visual representations to further aid the reading material.

  9. Jesus Avatar

    As I read the Harmony II chapter I really enjoyed how you guys incorporated how the ii and the iii chords fit in and what other chords that can come after and before them. Like lead up the them. Overall the chapter was well organized and you guys had many examples that helped me a lot. What I also love about the chapter is that you guys include quizzes to help us know that we understand what we are reading. Overall great job.

  10. adriana Avatar

    I enjoyed reading the harmony II chapter, it really explains about the chords and how the fit in. I also like the quizzes because they explains the answer and why the other options don’t work. Its a well organized chapter.

  11. Khadraa Kamaruzaman Avatar
    Khadraa Kamaruzaman

    In the section Harmony II, it explains about how chords I IV and V are very important in creating songs. It helps me a lot, especially in my music project. Everything is well explained which makes it much more easier to understand. The supporting materials are great too. While I was reading through this section, there were so many questions playing on my mind, and the good thing is, everything was answered on the quiz included. Overall, this book is so informative and it has everything that I need to know.

  12. Nancy Vang Avatar
    Nancy Vang

    For this chapter in Harmony II, I thought they explained this greatly. The information that was given to us was really specific and the example along with it worked really well because it just helped us better understand what they were trying to inform us with. I don’t think it could have been explained any simpler than this. It was thorough and well put out for many of us readers to understand.

  13. Mark N Avatar
    Mark N

    The Harmony II chapter was written and explained very well. The way you guys incorporated the ii and iii chords was smooth and easy to pick up on. Also the visual references were very accommodating to understanding where
    and when chords should go. Lastly, the thing that was really helpful was the questions/quizzes at the end of the
    reading. These helped reinforced what I learned and made it sink in a bit better.

  14. Jen Liz Cheong Avatar
    Jen Liz Cheong

    In my opinion, I think that the Harmony II chapter is very useful and the information given was very clear written and easy to understand. It explains the major chords that is mostly used in songs and it made me understand more and most importantly makes me able to imply these chords into any melody I am composing.

    Besides that, the example that was given is also very close related to the audience because they used the latest songs and so it made the readers able to understand easily and through these examples are able to realize what chords were used in these songs.

    Another thing that I like about this chapter is that after each sub section, they will give provide questions and quizzes to the readers. This made me able to revise and recall what I have read. I also find that quizzes helps me to remember the main points the article was planning to convey even better.

    I think it would be even better if they could provide more examples and maybe include some summary for the whole chapter so that we can always refer to the summary instead of finding the information we need by searching for the pages.

  15. Cameron Grant Avatar
    Cameron Grant

    While reading Hooktheory, “Harmony 2” chapters 2 chord and 3 chord were real interesting to me, as a non music major it was difficult to understand so i had to reread the chapters a few times and as i did i start to realize that the music is not as easy as people and music industries make it. i read these chapters knowing that i did not know about music but it somewhat defines and breaks down how certain things are played within music chords. Reading about the chords and how different they are 2 chord has a different theme to it and its how harmonically it is compared to the 3 chord and doesn’t have that many restrictions such as the 3 chord. Not knowingly knowing the difference but i realize through the Harmony 2 there is a difference and if you know music much more than i know you can see and hear it when music is being played. Even more i find it great to be that we have the access to such examples to show and teach us the difference bc just having a book would not help in situation like this. Without Hooktheory i could not understand the music things that i know but making it harder is some of the vocabulary thats used can be quite different. I recommend people in further Music classes revolve around Hooktheory because its a good source of information to gain if you do not know about music and its role.

  16. Cody Nichols Avatar
    Cody Nichols

    Reading the chapters on Harmony II will be a great tool when making my music project for my music class, especially as anon-music major. It showed plenty of examples of when to use the ii and iii chords, and told us how to use them. However it would have been nice if there had been some examples of when those chords had been used, and failed, or when different chords were used instead of the recommended chords. However if there aren’t any failure examples, then everything was really good.

  17. Hashim Al-Ali Avatar
    Hashim Al-Ali

    When read the chapter 2 on Harmony II, I realized that the chapter was obvious well written. As matter fact, this information will be useful to whom want to learn how to create music. But there are still some examples it. I would suggest to put some example of how the chords look like on the notes.

  18. Rosely Vue Avatar
    Rosely Vue

    Harmony II was a good
    read. This chapter deepened my understanding of harmony in music. I don’t
    really like to read online texts for class however, Hooktheory is easy to use and
    the writing level was easy. It was precise
    in what it wanted to the reader to get out of each chapter. Furthermore, the relatable
    examples are helpful. After reading a section, I can play the example and then
    automatically apply what I just learned. This technique is effective because
    the concept sticks to me and I can go back to examples if I need to. I would
    definitely recommend this to other students and look forward to the development
    of Hooktheory.

  19. Richard Sedillo Avatar
    Richard Sedillo

    Harmony II was very insightful i really enjoyed the all music samples you have shown from all types of music. Harmony II was my favorite chapter and has helped me understand music chords, and how important they are to make a song. Also this chapter has helped me with my music project for my class. This chapter was given my many grate examples and has broadened my knowledge of music. I would say well done the chapter is well written and i would not change anything!

  20. NestorV Avatar

    What I liked about the chapter Harmony II was the examples it gives and how it explains thing to the reader however I felt that it could use more in depth details when it talk about what is harmony and how to use I felt that it was too broad and it as if they expect us to already to know. If it is going to be a text book it needs more details and step by step processes. For example when it talks about the iii chord it gives a brief introduction paragraph but that’s it the examples where great but not everyone is a music prodigy and understands it.

  21. Cindy Loera Avatar
    Cindy Loera

    As i read the chapter Harmony II, i liked how each and every point that is said is presented with an example of a song. The thing about the songs were that they are popular song that many young adults, which i really like. Even though there was a lot of information to take in, the examples helped majorly. The thing that i will like to say is that it is kind of confusing to understand the chords because the notes are not shown. I think if this could change, it will help me majorly as well as my classmates. Other than that, this chapter was great.

  22. samuelm Avatar

    i really enjoyed hook theory because it was a good experience i don’t like online books but the way that hook theory explained it it was really good and it made me understand the material that it was being explain. i understood the cored and the way that it show examples of the more recent songs that are being play in the radio.

  23. ghazaleh Bahrami Bidouni Avatar
    ghazaleh Bahrami Bidouni

    I think that this chapter is successful in teaching you the basics of
    certain harmonic chords. I like how it mixed semi-popular songs with
    classical songs to show examples of the harmonic qualities of the iii
    chord. It is also very important to learn how basic chord progressions
    function and how important music theory is even in non-classical music.
    The applications in the chapter help with visualizing the chord
    progression as they move and also to help listen.

  24. Wesley Carabarin Avatar
    Wesley Carabarin

    Hooktheory part 2 Harmony. Was a great way for me to learn the difference in listening in pitches of different popular music out in the moment. What i do want to criticize is the menu it takes to get to the readings and the trends . The Trends tab was especially difficult for me to understand especially when it does not give me a menu to look up what I want to look for. Maybe a close up to this part of the site and make a bit more accesible instead of having to click around and find what i was looking for by luck it felt like. It took me 5 minutes to find what i needed. Even with this menu problem, I still believed hooktheory was the best for me to understand music better. I give a 2 thumbs up !

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