An Important Rule About Rules: There Are No Rules

It’s a real shame if your need to follow rules just cramps your creativity.


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Alicia Keys: Fallin'Every once in a while even I use the word “rules” when it comes to music, though I try not to. I prefer words like “guidelines”, “formulas”, and “principles.” Songwriting is a creative art, an activity that needs you to feel unencumbered and imaginative. Discovering and following principles of good songwriting is a good idea. Following those principles as if they were rules is just a shame. You need to discover the difference between following rules, and acknowledging principles.

In songwriting, as with all creative arts, principles appear with the passage of time. If something is done enough, a basic principle emerges. Even though we state those principles in very specific ways, the actual principle may be somewhat less specific.

Here’s an example of what I mean. We know by studying pop music from the past several decades that chorus melodies are usually higher in pitch than verse melodies. The principle in play here relates to song energy. The human voice exudes more energy when it’s higher. So since song energy should increase as a song proceeds (that’s the actual principle), it makes sense to have melodies move higher.

But that’s not a rule. There are songs where the chorus melody actually sits a little lower than the verse melody that comes before it. Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’” is perhaps a good example of this. Even though some of the highest notes happen in the verse section, you never get the sense that song energy is flagging as the melody moves downward.

If you ever feel that you need to ask a question that begins with, “Am I allowed…”, or “What’s the rule for…”, the problem is not that you don’t know the rule. The problem is that your creative mind has temporarily slowed, and it’s normal.

When you compose, what sounds good to your ears is the proper answer to “Am I allowed?” But what do you do if you’re truly stuck, and you don’t know what to do next?

Not knowing what to do next in the songwriting process is not an indication that you don’t know the rules. It’s merely an indication that you’re a human being with a momentary creative clog, and everyone experiences that from time to time. At those times, it’s best to simply stop for a while – sometimes just for an hour or two – and divert your attention with something else.

Songwriters obsessed with rules will tend to write music that sounds like every other song out there. And that’s bad because you’re simply recreating yesterday, and that audience has already moved on. In that sense, rules of songwriting change all the time, since the hits of today don’t sound a lot like the hits of a few decades (or even a year or two!) ago.

But principles change at a much, much slower rate. It surprises many to know that the principles that exist today are the ones that even Classical composers of a few centuries ago were following.

In my experience, the more a songwriter listens to other musicians’ music, the less they feel the need to ever ask “Am I allowed to…”

In short, as always, it should be your ears that guide your songwriting, not your adherence to rules.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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