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The Rule of Three and Music

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The Rule of Three is a popular concept used in many art forms such as writing and photography to achieve a balance of elements and structure. There is little discussion of The Rule of Three being applied to music, however, though the same concept can be applied to just about every aspect of our craft. From the first sketches of a composition to the production of a final mix, we can use this simple device to achieve a balance of interest and clarity so that our ideas are clearly expressed and heard.

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in May of 2009.

What is the Rule of Three?

Wikipedia defines the Rule of Three as "a principle in English writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things." If as composers we approach it in a linear sense, the idea is that three is the smallest number of elements you can have to both establish and break a pattern.

A very common application of this rule is for telling jokes. The first element sets up the topic, the second element establishes a pattern and the third element breaks the pattern, disrupting our expectations and hopefully causing us to laugh. eg. "A Las Vegas wedding package contains everything you will need; music, flowers, and a divorce document."

Other examples of the Rule of Three include the three act structure used in the standard Hollywood screenplay, the three basic elements of a story (beginning, middle and end), and even many classic fairytales. Just think of The Three Little Pigs (the third house, made of brick, can't be blown down by the wolf) or Goldilocks and the Three Bears (the first bowl of porridge is too hot, the second is too cold, but that third bowl is juuuust right).

What does this have to do with music?

OK, so you understand why the rule of three can makes jokes funny and help us tell a story. But what does any of that have to do with music?

Without getting too philosophical, we want our music to engage our listeners. We want them to be captivated, to experience a particular feeling that we're trying to convey, or sometimes we simply want them to be entertained. But in order for composers and songwriters to communicate with our listeners, our music needs to keep them interested and express our ideas clearly. This is where the Rule of Three steps in as a way to gauge our music's effectiveness.

Maintaining Interest

Keeping your music interesting is a much more difficult task than most people realize. There is a very delicate balance between a piece of music so boring that people start to doze off, and something so complex that the listener can't keep up with it any longer and gives up. The trick is to find a balance between repetition, so that the listener has something familiar they can grab onto and follow, and variation, so the listener feels challenged to keep up and surprised by the direction the music is taking.

Similar to telling a joke, using the Rule of Three gives us the smallest number of elements to establish a pattern and then keep the listener engaged by breaking it. Consider the effectiveness of the Lennon/McCartney lyrics "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?". These are not groundbreaking lyrics that are changing the face of literature, but they are catchy and memorable. We have a topic "Will you still need me?", the establishment of a pattern "Will you still feed me?" and then a break in the pattern to move the song forward "When I'm Sixty-Four". Or consider the catchiness of this simple line (my apologies for getting this stuck in your head): "Gimme a break, gimme a break, break me off a piece of that Kit-Kat bar." In this case the pattern is even more obvious, as the second line is a complete repeat of the first line.

Here are two popular classical examples: (for the sake of avoiding copyright infringement I'm using material that could be considered a bit... old. Look past the style and consider how effectively the concept works!)

Vivaldi

Vivaldi's Spring starts with a simple one bar motif (1), then repeats it verbatim (2). This has established a pattern in our minds, and unconsciously sets up our expectations that we'll hear the pattern a third time. He defies our expectations, however, and takes the melody in a new direction (3). If you keep listening to the piece you can hear on an even grander scale that he repeats these same four bars again only at a quieter dynamic level. By the end of those 8 bars we've heard the same thing twice. Hearing it a third time would start to get annoying, so Vivaldi waits just long enough to take us in a new direction.

Mozart

The next example comes from Mozart's Symphony #40 in G minor in which he uses the Rule of Three on two levels. He begins with a three note idea (1) which repeats (2), but the third time surprises us by leaping up to the Bb (3). He then uses that whole motif to set up the same structure. Bars 5-8 (B) are a repetition of bars 1-4 (A) but with changes in pitch. Even though the repetition is not exactly the same, notice that you still feel a sense of a pattern being established. Playing the motif twice is just enough times before we're pulled forward in a new direction (C). Mozart uses this technique constantly; once you start listening for it you'll hear it in almost everything he writes.

How You Can Use This

None of this information will do us much good on a conceptual level, so how can we use this idea to improve our own writing? Some simple suggestions:

1. As a way to identify moments in your music that are either too boring or run on too long. Listen to your songs for those spots that seem the least exciting to you and you'll often be able to catch a fault in some idea having become too repetitive. Can you shorten the song by taking out the unnecessary repetitions that are dragging your whole thing down? If you're not repeating something to establish a pattern which is about to be broken, make sure you understand why you're repeating it or you may just be boring your listener.

2. As a creativity springboard. Applying the formula of "idea, repetition, variation" can actually be a very liberating feeling when you're stuck staring at a blank page or empty session. Just write a few notes, even a three note idea. Now repeat it. Write a third bar that takes it in a new direction and all of a sudden you've got the opening bars to a new piece of music. Repeat those 4 bars, and then take it in a new direction. Rinse and repeat, and before you know it you have a substantial composition on your hands that you can really start to work with. OK sure that sounds easier said than done, but before you laugh it off consider that it's the simplest devices that are almost always the most effective.

The above examples demonstrate how to keep horizontal interest (the linear passing of time). In the next tutorial we'll examine how the Rule of Three can be used to create both vertical interest and clarity.

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