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Writing a song can take time. Learning a song can also take a while. And oftentimes, songwriters will write a song only to have to later bring it to their band, who must go through the learning process themselves.
If only there was a tool that made the process of songwriting and experimentation easier, made the process of writing and learning faster, and even allowed for the rapid creation of scores and lead sheets…
That’s exactly what Hookpad claims to be. Let’s talk about Hookpad.
But first, if it's your aim to do music professionally, you'll want to check out our free ebook while it's still available:
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What Is Hookpad?
Hooktheory develops software and interactive learning materials for musicians. It was created by Chris Anderson, Dave Carlton, and Ryan Miyakawa while they were working on their PhDs at UC Berkeley. They have been working on a variety of projects together.
They describe Hookpad as an “intelligent musical sketchpad.” Using this sketchpad, you can write and experiment with chord progressions and melodies, even if you don’t know all there is to know about music theory.
In this hands-on review, I will share my experience of Hookpad with you. I will also cover what you can do with Hookpad, as well as the user interface and usability.
How Much Does Hookpad Cost?
Hookpad is available as a one-time purchase or a subscription. And the cost is nominal. These are the payment options:
- $4.99 monthly subscription
- $49.00 yearly subscription
- $149.00 one-time subscription
If you’d like to learn more about music theory, simply add a $34.98 one-time purchase to your total for access to Hooktheory’s interactive books.
My Personal Hookpad Experience Reviewed
In this section, I’m going to give you a blow by blow of my experience with Hookpad, through the eyes of someone who had never used it before. And I point out what I like and don’t like about the platform along the way.
Let’s start here:
Purchase & Login
Although you can try Hookpad’s full functionality for about 90 seconds (free trial), after that, it’s necessary to purchase a subscription, which is what I did.
After purchasing a subscription, it was necessary to set up an account.
My purchase was completed, and a link brought me over to the sketchpad.
Bam. Hookpad is in your face. Now what?
That was kind of my first impression as I was getting started.
For most, the best place to start will be “Progressions.” Using this control on the toolbar, you can easily pull up a set of common chord progressions typically found in popular music. This is exactly what I did upon entry.
Now, while this is a nice starting point, there are only 12 preset chord progressions. For most pop music, this might suffice, but it seems like they could have added more (something they might be working on).
I chose a chord progression and decided to play it so I could have a listen. It started playing on the wrong bar, so I had to click on the first bar to bring it back to the beginning. When I got it working, I heard a piano vamp. Nice for a bit of instant gratification.
Then I started messing around with different chord progressions to hear how they sounded. This was fast and easy to do. Mixing and matching different progressions from the library was also easy and satisfying.
Key Signature & Tempo
Next, I started messing around with the key and tempo. I figured I would move it to a key a I like to sing in (like A) and cranked up the tempo to 154.
Side note – I’m quite impressed with the Key function as it allows you to choose from the 12 keys of music circle of fifths style, and you can even choose from the modes of the major scale, harmonic minor, and Phrygian dominant. Parallel or relative scale types are also available.
Having changed the key, the chords onscreen also changed.
This makes it easy for you to pick up and play what’s onscreen using your instrument (assuming you know your chords!).
I’d found a four-bar pattern I liked, so I decided to loop it using the Loop function, which was easy to do. I clicked and dragged it across eight bars, as I had already inputted eight bars worth of the four-bar progression.
Now I thought I would add a melody to test out additional functionality. Hookpad lets you type numbers to input melody notes, which is quite handy (numbers one through seven, representing the seven degrees of the scale).
Hookpad also tells you which three notes each chord has been built off, so if you want to stay in the “safe” zone while creating your melody, you can!
Changing the duration of notes is also easy. You can click and drag or use the Duration controls in the main toolbar.
I composed my melody somewhat intentionally, somewhat randomly. It came out sounding kind of ethereal, which I didn’t mind. It didn’t take long to do, and likewise editing wouldn’t be a chore.
But using this method, you could easily explore a variety of melodies for your song without committing anything to tape.
In the Hookpad default mode, you will hear your song played on piano. But there are numerous genre/style templates you can choose from to affect the sound.
I first clicked on Rock because it’s one of my favorites. For whatever reason, it took a while to load. I didn’t expect this, but it’s not a major detractor. Once it was loaded up, I could hear my song being played on electric guitars and drums, which was fun!
Templates include Pop, Rock, Pop Ballad, Electro Pop, Bossa Nova, Hip Hop, Reggae, Ska, Electro Chiptune, Electro Industrial, Jazz, and Orchestral. Of course, I had to give each of these a go (while coping with load times).
Here are some thoughts on each:
- Pop – sounds kind of 80s to me!
- Rock – nice, meaty electric guitars.
- Pop Ballad – the melody has kind of a voice quality to it.
- Electro Pop – makes me think of 90s dance music.
- Bossa Nova – gives you a nice bossa groove.
- Hip Hop – sounds more like industrial rock to me.
- Reggae – gives you a killer bass groove.
- Ska – totally on point.
- Electro Chiptune – gives you that fun, video game vibe!
- Electro Industrial – sounds more like EDM – trance, maybe?
- Jazz – gives you a nice swung groove and walking bass line.
- Orchestral – sounds positively epic!
Messing around with these proved a ton of fun!
Having added a melody, I thought I would play around with the lyrics function a little bit.
This function also works quite intuitively and will automatically assign one syllable per note, though you can use dashes (-) to manually separate syllables.
Lyrics you type will appear within the staff.
I did not spend a lot of time on this, but should you want to take advantage of this function, know that it works well.
Next, I wanted to try out the export functionality.
As promised, you can export to MIDI, score, tab, lead, MP3, and WAV. I thought I would give all these a try. Why not?
I composed a little piece called “In Another Paradise,” and used that for my testing purposes.
- MIDI – worked perfectly. Quick and easy.
- Score – came out in PDF form. Showed the full score, including the melody, chord progression, bass lines, chords, and more. Quite impressed with this!
- Tab – also came out in PDF form. Worked well, except it only shows chord diagrams along with melody in tab form. No rhythm notation, no tab for rhythm parts. Still, quite cool.
- Lead – PDF. This works perfectly and could serve most purposes well.
- MP3 – took a little while to bounce audio (progress bar came up). Quality was good!
- WAV – again, it took a little while to bounce the audio but about the same as the MP3. The audio came out exactly as I heard it on Hookpad.
I think the Tab export function might be the least usable, though it still works for tabbing out melodies or lead lines.
Otherwise, all the export functions are amazing.
The mixer function comes in quite handy if you want a little more control over the Band templates. The mixer gives you control over lead, chords, bass, drums, click (if activated), compressor, and master.
Should you want to mix a song idea before exporting it, this should come in handy.
What Can I Do With Hookpad?
Now that I’ve experimented with Hookpad, I wanted to give you a sense of what you might be able to do with this musical sketchpad.
Come Up With Song Ideas
Artists often assume a “blank canvas” is the best thing to start with, but typically, it’s too much pressure. Trying to come up with something out of the blue is challenging at the best of times.
But if you put specific rails on your project and start with a theme or framework, writing becomes easier. Even if you don’t end up using the song ideas exactly as you come up with them in Hookpad, if it inspires your writing, it will have served its purpose!
Flesh Out Your Songs
It’s quite common for musicians to get stuck while writing songs.
With the help of a tool like Hookpad, you can start messing around with various chord progressions and melodies, which can help you get un-stuck while writing your music.
Notate Your Music
With Hookpad’s powerful export functionality, once you’ve finished a project, you can easily export to a PDF that you can share with collaborators and bandmates, or just use for your own purposes.
Make A Song
If you wanted to, you could make a full song with Hookpad, and export it to MP3 or WAV.
If you want to add to it later, and/or use your own virtual instruments, then simply export to MIDI and import it into your DAW where you can record additional instruments.
You could even write additional parts for your songs within Hookpad, and again, export them to MIDI for use within your DAW environment.
If you’re writing songs, then there are always interesting ways to take advantage of a tool like this.
I like using the Band templates, as you can hear how your song might sound in a specific style. That can open doors to a lot of ideas.
I bet there are creative ways of using Hookpad I haven’t even thought of yet. If interested, give it a go yourself and see what happens.
Hookpad Usability, User Interface & Overall Impression
In this section, we’ll cover issues concerning usability and user interface. I touch a little bit on the overall experience of the Hookpad platform as well to round things out.
The Hookpad user interface may feel a little cumbersome at first. And the graphics are a little old school, giving it a bit of an industrial vibe.
But overall, it’s quite user friendly. Most of the controls you’ll use are on the main toolbar, where you can change the duration of bars, and select from different chords in your current key signature.
There are also controls for letting Hookpad’s AI choose chord progressions, choosing from a library of popular chords, adding custom chords to your song, choosing chords that contain specific notes, choosing common chords based on bass notes, and selecting from a set of common chord progressions.
If you’re in “Note” mode, you will see a different set of controls, showing you the notes in the chosen key (default is C major). You will also see controls for raising or lowering the notes (half step or whole step), and octaves (raise or lower).
In the upper toolbar, you have basic playback controls (play, record, loop, click, mixer), meter, key, tempo, band (choose from different instruments, lyrics, sections, guides (for highlighting scale degrees), and lock (for previewing notes before you enter them on the staff).
This is also where you’ll find obligatory controls, like delete, undo, redo, cut, copy, paste, nudge, and zoom functions.
In the center of the screen, you’ll find the staff. Though you can certainly mess around with Hookpad without knowing much about music theory (after all, they let you access a library of common chord progressions), it is much easier to work with if you have a bit of a working knowledge of music theory.
You can click on the staff to add notes and chords, which we find relatively intuitive and fun to use.
To the right of the staff, there are controls for chords or notes, depending on which you have selected. Using the chord properties, you can turn chords into dominants, use different inversions, make them suspended, diminished, altered or slash chords, and more.
Other controls can be triggered using buttons. The lyrics control, for example, will open a window on the right side where you can type your lyrics. If you click on the band button, a frame will appear at the bottom, where you can choose Band templates.
What We Like Most About Hookpad
Having given an overview of the Hookpad interface, we’d like to summarize what we like most about the interface.
Here are our bullets:
- Easy to understand staff system, especially if you already have experience with sheet music, tab, or lead sheets.
- The libraries (Magic, Popular, Search, Tone Sets, Bass Sets, and Progressions) come in handy when building a song from scratch.
- The Band templates are fun to play with and can give you ideas in terms of song arrangement.
- All the export functionality works perfectly and is quite impressive to boot!
- Hookpad shows you the scale degrees for each chord. This is super handy when writing melodies.
- Hookpad makes it super easy for you to modify your chords, turning them into dominant, suspended, diminished, slash chords, or otherwise. No matter what key you’re in, Hookpad will tell you exactly what roman numeral (i.e. I, ii, V, etc.) represents what chord.
- Each chord/note is color coded. It seems like a small thing but it’s super helpful, and hasn’t gone unnoticed by us.
- The Lyrics functionality is powerful and easy to use.
What Could Be Better
Now, here’s what we thought could be better about the Hookpad interface:
- Controls feel cluttered. Easy to feel overwhelmed upon entry. It only gets more cluttered as you trigger additional functionality like lyrics.
- Interface design is circa mid-2000s. Not necessarily a bad thing, just not totally up to date.
- Different instrument templates can take a while to load. Hookpad can also stutter or glitch out (and sometimes even crash) while you’re waiting for templates to load. I had the most issues with Electro Pop.
- If Hookpad crashes, you will lose whatever progress you made. Be sure to save your projects often!
Hookpad Review, The Final Verdict
Overall, Hookpad is a mess of fun.
It gets you thinking about songs a little differently, and maybe a little more linearly. But that’s not a bad thing when you’re writing songs and sketching out ideas, and if you want to fine tune, change the duration of notes, and so on, they give you the option.
With Hookpad, you can get up and running fast. You can take a chord progression from the library and start messing around with it, without ever having to come up with your own.
Of course, if you do have a chord progression in mind, or there’s something specific you want to try, you have that opportunity too.
The interface is easy to use, and it doesn’t take too long to get used to. And while it is a tad cluttered and old school looking, you will get used to the controls relatively quickly.
The export functionality is beyond anything I’ve seen in software like this. Impressive to say the least.
The staff is a little unusual, and that’s perhaps the part that will take the most getting used to for newbies. If you’re a composer or purist, though, Hookpad probably isn’t for you. You should go for a professional composing or notation software like Sibelius instead.
Hookpad is intended for songwriters. To help them generate ideas. To help them work their way out of a songwriting corner or rut. And to that extent, you can get up and running fast. It’s the perfect tool for endless experimentation, even if it’s just a few bars worth of music.
If you understand music theory, then you will be able to do just about anything you want with Hookpad. If you don’t know, then repeated use of the app should begin to teach you some of the ins and outs of music.
So, in closing, Hookpad is a powerful songwriting, sketching, and idea generation tool. It’s unlikely you will use it for all your songwriting efforts, but for all those times you feel like messing around, trying out some ideas, or even putting together a quick song, there’s Hookpad.