I always say that it’s not rules that we consider in good songwriting, but principles, which serve as guidelines for us. Perhaps a sport can provide us with a good analogy here.
When you watch an excellent tennis player, we’re not at all amazed by their following of the rules of the game. Tennis has rules, and no doubt the players are subconsciously aware of them as the game proceeds. With every hit of the racquet against the ball, there are rules that need to be followed: whether the ball lands on this or that side of a line, where their foot is when they serve, and even how the points are tallied; there are rules.
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But a good tennis match makes you forget the rules. Rules aren’t impressive; players are.
In music, even though we’re fond of saying there are no rules, I suppose you could argue that there are at least some “quasi-rules”, rules that we accept as part of the language of music. For example, you may have made a decision that your song is going to be in A major, so there are things that need to happen to make A sound like a tonic note. Even if we don’t call those “rules”, they come pretty close.
In tennis, there is a rule that says a serve must land at a certain area of the court. That rule adds little to the enjoyment of tennis. It’s a rule that’s in place to control the general parameters of the game.
With tennis, you can follow the rules completely, and still lose the game. Your prowess, skill and talent as a player will determine whether or not you win, not the rules of the game.
With music, you could write a song that satisfies every “Can I…” and “Am I allowed to..” question you can possibly come up with, but still write a bad song.
And that’s because, like tennis, rules add little to the enjoyment of music. It’s your skill and talent, partnered with your musical imagination, that will determine the excellence of your song, not the rules.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.
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