“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.