Use this classic writers rule to achieve pop perfection.
The rule of three is a well known principle among writers which states that everything is more humorous, satisfying, or effective when it involves three events or characters than any other number.
Certainly this is borne out in well known story themes: the Three Little Pigs, the Three Musketeers, Three Billy Goats Gruff. Even common jokes – the Englishmen, the Irishmen and the Scotsman.
The reason this works in comedy is simple to understand – three is the smallest number that can be used to set up a pattern (1 does X, 2 does X) and then break it (3 does Y). More characters could reinforce the pattern, but they also serve to complicate the story and prolong the payoff, risking losing your audience.
In photography, a similar principle (known slightly differently as the “rule of thirds”) divides an image into three equal bars vertically and three horizontally, and suggests optimum positioning of the subject of the photograph according to these bars.
In fact, rules of three exist in mathematics, aviation, economics, statistics, survivalism, chemistry… even scuba diving!
“That’s all very nice, but what does it have to do with songwriting?” I hear you ask.
The reason for providing this context is to demonstrate that we are conditioned as human beings to think in threes. They’re all around us – the beginning, middle and end of how we see the world.
If you look at a modern pop song, you can almost always see the rule of threes in effect in the following ways:
- Three choruses – nearly every modern pop song has three choruses these days. This is believed to be enough for the listener to hear the chorus, learn the chorus, and repeat the chorus so that they’re singing along after the first listen.
- Three sections – as discussed in the post on song forms, the most popular song structures split neatly into three parts: the first verse and chorus, the second verse and chorus, and the bridge and final chorus.
- Three subsections – to take this even further, we can very often split each section into smaller pieces: verse 1, pre-chorus, chorus – verse 2, pre-chorus, chorus – bridge, pre-chorus, chorus – 3 x 3 !!
I hope this brief introduction to the rule of three gives you a slightly different lens to look at your songwriting through. If you’ve used this yourself and want to share, leave us a note in the comments!