Songwriting, and a New Kind of 80-20 Rule

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Guitarist on stageMany of you are likely familiar with the 80-20 rule in business, which states that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clients. In music, there’s a different kind of 80-20 rule, and it pertains to the predictability factor of music: For songs to be successful, they need to be doing something somewhat predictable at least 80% of the time. By “predictable”, we don’t mean that your audience should be able to guess actual notes, lyrics and chords. But the elements that you put together to form your song should be the kinds of things expected in your chosen genre of music, with no more than 20% of your song being innovative and unexpected.

Even there, 20% “newness” is actually a healthy dose. It doesn’t take much of a weirdness, or an innovative moment, to have a song sound strange to someone’s ears. To you as a songwriter, you may really enjoy your extra-creative moments, but always remember that there’s a potential negative side that must be considered: every time your song goes in an odd direction, you risk losing listeners who are getting lost or confused.

Of course, what you hope is that your song is just creative enough that it stimulates listeners, rather than scaring them. It’s all a matter of balance.

This idea of balancing innovative music with a predictable, traditional approach can happen in different ways. Within the song itself, you may find that you can use startling lyrics or chord relationships that don’t predominate, but simply add a unique flavour to your song.

And the same thing can happen within a collection of songs (i.e., a recording). This was a favourite technique of The Beatles. If every song on the White Album sounded like “Revolution 9” (in which the weirdness factor is off the scale!), we likely wouldn’t be talking about that album today. But positioned as it is, within an eclectic collection of great songs, it adds a flavour that makes that album distinctive, without scaring listeners away.

Weirdness, it needs to be said, is not necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re looking to quickly build an audience base, you’ll want to control it carefully.

Here are some tips for making innovation work for you in most genres:

  1. Innovative lyrics. Give the listener enough to understand what you’re singing about. It doesn’t have to be obvious right away. There’s nothing wrong with making listeners work a bit. But most successful lyrics will use common, every day words, the kind you’d hear the average person use in conversation. Listen to Imogen Heap’s lyrics for a perfect example.
  2. Innovative chords. Chord progressions, practically by definition, should move in a commonsense way. But every once in a while, it’s nice to throw in something that startles. But try this trick that has been in the toolkit of even seasoned Classical composers: when you surprise the listener with a chord that seems to come out of the blue, move toward something more predictable for the next several chords. That should give you a balance that works.
  3. Innovative melodies. We all know that melodies that have a climactic high point wind up being more easily remembered. So contour your melodies with this in mind. And also, most melodies feature more stepwise motion than leaps. So an innovative melody will likely use more leaps, but keep the “leapiest” bits toward the middle of phrases, and end challenging melodies with stepwise motion.
  4. Innovative song forms. You may find that the standard verse-chorus-bridge forms are just too mundane for your musical tastes. It’s quite possible to sell a new form to your listener, one that doesn’t necessarily conform to the standard hit radio format. But if you do, keep this in mind: repetition is the key feature of song form. So every time you feel that your song is starting to meander, strengthen the form by having something – anything – repeat.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. Pingback: Friday is a crap song. Don’t say it isn’t, it is. |

  2. I’m going to try out this 80-20 rule. Sounds really fun. I’ve listened to music where they try to be way too out there with wierdness, making the music unlistenable. Then, I’ve heard no innovation which is equally unlistenable.

    What I”m trying to do with my my music is to get the framework of the song written first. Then, add innovating stylings to set the song apart from everything else. This article has helped me figure out how to apply those stylings. Thank you!

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