“Rules” in Songwriting

I recently had Australian songwriter Michael Paynter in to guest teach a class, and he was expertly giving some feedback to a student’s song project. He dropped a bit of a knowledge bomb—a shorthand ‘rule’: The Rule of 3’s.

The rule goes like this: in any production, the ear of a listener can really only pay attention to 3 separate elements. Any more than that, and it becomes distracting. The ear doesn’t know what to listen to, so it disengages.

How this translates in practice is to limit the amount of ‘special,’ or attention-pulling things going on at any one time to 3. The other elements should be consistent, and not ostentatious. For example, you might have a guitar riff, some important lyrics/vocal, and a cool bass line. If those 3 things are all happening at once, the drums should take a back seat. Keep an even, unornamented groove holding down the basic beat. Same for the keys, or any other elements you have going on.

The ear can travel around 3 interesting elements without losing its grasp on the gestalt of the song—the overall picture and sonic scape. But if everything sparkles, nothing shines.

It reminds me of another ‘rule’ in songwriting, which is actually the Rule of 2’s:

If you are going to repeat something exactly twice, the ear will generally need some variation next, in order to return to the repeating part. Twice is nice—three is too much.

You can listen to neuroscientist Daniel Levitan (author of ‘This is Your Brain on Music’) talk to songwriter Scarlet Keys about this on her wonderful podcast, ‘What’s In a Song’.

All of which raises an interesting question: are there rules in songwriting?

Here are my brief thoughts: Not really. There are, however, observable effects, and it is at our own peril to ignore them. Sometimes ignoring them is important. Each song is different—there might be a very compelling reason why repeating something over and over exactly, more than twice, is going to feel really good. There might be a particular arrangement of elements in a production where lots of parts are each special and quirky, and yet somehow the combination just works. But it’s useful to have a few guiding principles to then bounce against when needed.

Why write it as a song?

It’s a question I ask of myself all the time. Why write this idea as a song, and not as a poem? A short story? A blog post? An angry rant to a neighbour? 

What function does a song serve that draws me to it as the vehicle for an idea?

One answer is that a song has the capacity, like no other thing, to make us feel thought. Songs translate ideas into emotion. We get the beauty and nuance and narrative of words, with the unspeakable colours of music. Nothing else does it quite like that.

And what draws people to song? There are obviously lots of reasons, ways, places and purposes for listening to songs (Dan Levitan’s ‘The World in Six Songs’ is a nice anthropological working on the social and biological function of song throughout human history), but I recently had another inkling about the strange addiction to writing and listening to songs, while reading Matthew Dicks’ ‘Storyworthy’. Dicks starts by outlining what he means by storytelling when he does it and teaches others to do it. One of the core principles is this: write only your story, never anyone else’s. It sounds obvious, but the idea is that even when you want to tell a story about someone or something other than you, it only connects with an audience (which is to say, they will only be moved, changed, transformed by it), if it is told from your perspective; how that story happened to you; how it changed you. As Dicks puts it:

People would rather hear the story about what happened to you last night than about what happened to Pete, even if Pete’s story is better than your own

Dicks distinguishes this type of storytelling from fables and fiction, that both have a different (and important) function; but there is nothing that cracks our own hearts into a shape capable of bending and changing like a true story told by the person who experienced it. 

This is also what songs are at their best. 

I am, admittedly, a fan of fiction in songwriting. I like bending the truth—often so out of shape that I end up singing from the perspectives of infanticidal primary school teachers and self-sabotaging scientists awash in delusions of grandeur. I love Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Gillian Welch (songwriters who revel in persona-driven stories). I love feeling that there can be truth, honesty, and discovery that can only be reached by searching beyond our own autobiographies. 

But it is undeniable that we as listeners crave the “immediacy and grit and inherent vulnerability in hearing the story of someone standing before you” (to quote Dicks again). So it is with story; so it is with song.

I’m only a third of the way through Storyworthy, and loving every page. There will be a lot in here that I will borrow and translate into my songwriting classes.