When you talk about thirds to a musician, you’re usually talking about the space between two notes, like C to E, or D to F, and so on. In photography, the so-called “rule of thirds” is completely different: it refers to dividing an image into thirds using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines.
The theory is that objects that are a point of focus should be centred on one of the spots where the lines intersect, like in this image from the Photography Mad website:
Obviously, there’s no relation between the rule of thirds in photography, and thirds as we usually discuss them in music. But it got me thinking that in songwriting, as well as other kinds of musical composition, we also observe a kind of rule that’s similar to the rule of thirds.
Photographers are always thinking about the point of focus in a picture when they consider a photo’s composition, and that’s where the rule of thirds becomes tremendously important. By offsetting the butterfly in the photo above, it provides a sense of creative tension that encourages the eye to move, and the viewer to consider how the point of focus interacts with other aspects of the photo.
I won’t say more about it than that, as I am not a photographer. But in music, we also deal with a song’s point of focus, and in fact, most songs are a conglomeration of several points of focus. Some examples that might appear in a song:
- A song’s climactic high point (usually in the chorus melody).
- A crucial “other shoe dropping” moment in the lyric.
- A loudest moment in a song (either in the chorus, or perhaps during a song’s bridge.)
- A dramatic moment other than a climactic high point. (Like the scream at the end of the instrumental break in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again“)
In most songs, one point of focus usually takes precedence over all others. Most verses, for example, will have a moment that sounds somewhat climactic, but the climactic moment that occurs in the chorus will usually supersede the verse’s moment.
And you’ll notice that, just as in photography, the climactic moment sounds better and more interesting if it’s not in the middle of the chorus, but offset, coming in more toward the beginning of the chorus, as in Lennon & McCartney’s “She Loves You”, or toward the end, as in the refrain of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.
By avoiding perfect symmetry in musical composition, we give the impression that other interesting things have and will happen in a song, but we can’t be sure during a first listening exactly when.
So it’s not exactly like the photographer’s rule of thirds, in the sense that we don’t typically divide the length of a song into thirds and place important events at the 1/3 or 2/3 location. But it does honour the basic idea of the rule of thirds: offsetting important musical structures so as to avoid simple symmetry.
Most of the time, songwriters will get this rule of thirds right by instinct. And there’s not much you can do about a song where offsetting musical focal points hasn’t happened. For example, there’s not much you can do if a song’s climactic moment happens exactly at the midpoint of a chorus melody. You’re not likely to rewrite your chorus to make it adhere to the rule.
But it’s still worth thinking about and considering, as a songwriter, that we find a song to be an interesting musical experience if we notice that all the focal points, both the big ones, like a chorus hook’s climactic moment, and smaller ones, like a verse melody’s high point, are not exactly in the middle.
If you’re like me, where you find yourself always looking for the ways in which artists in different disciplines are really all trying to achieve the same thing, the photographer’s “rule of thirds” is a great example.