The Rule of Three


The human ear can only focus on three distinct elements – use them wisely.

Ex: drums, chord, melody. Rotate elements to use the rule of three. Many elements combine so they are not considered distinct. ex: chords and a bassline that follows the root note of each chord. Listen to how pop song swap vocal leads for instrumental leads. Listen to EDM for examples of less than three elements are used for maximum impact

Audio examples:

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2 thoughts on “The Rule of Three

  1. Morgan,

    I’ll run-off on a bit of a tangent.

    I believe that much can be said about the misuse or misinterpretation of the ‘rule of three’ in the context of contemporary ‘EDM’.

    1. I feel as though contemporary ‘EDM’ tracks that use three elements or less often intend to achieve loudness/largeness, not musicality. A producer’s conscious selection of three elements may not have been guided by the consideration that an average listener can only focus on three elements at one time, but may have been guided by the considerations that: a) fewer elements allows for more headroom -> more headroom allows for a louder track -> a louder track will capture people’s attention at a festival; and b) this kind of track won’t be gawked at or rejected by listeners or DJs because so many other tracks have used this formula with great success. I think Hardwell’s latest remix for Calvin Harris is a perfect example of an arrangement purely designed for loudness/short-term festival impact, rather than musicality. The song isn’t so much a song anymore, it is a short-term sonic tool that will be irrelevant in 12 months and likely laughed at in 12 years.

    2. It’s important I acknowledge that you haven’t said “the ‘rule of three’ infers that a successful/pleasing song should only use 3 elements at any one time”, but I think a group of people out there interpret the ‘rule of three’ this way. I’m not saying that their interpretation is a misinterpretation, but I think that any producer who literally adheres to the ‘rule of three’ can rob a song of a pleasingly full/interesting arrangement. Yes, the average listener – me included – probably can attend to no more than 3 elements at any one time, but this doesn’t void the purpose of a fourth element, or even a sixth element … particularly if the song doesn’t need to be super-well produced to sound great on a club/festival sound system (i.e. songs intended for radio). In my opinion, additional elements tend to contribute to a pleasingly-full arrangement when heard by the human brain. At first, that might sound like a vague, fluffy statement, but this idea is founded in Science. Humans suffer a psychological phenomenon known as ‘Inattentional Blindness’. Inattentional Blindness simply means we don’t notice stuff that’s in plain sight because our attention is finite and it can only attend to a certain amount of stuff at any one time – or, in this case, hear a certain amount of stuff at any one time. For example, you’re having a conversation with two friends. Your attention is attending to your voice, your friends’ voices, whatever you’re thinking and whatever you’re seeing. You don’t notice the distant sound of cars, the sound of wind passing by, the sound of birds singing, the muttering of people walking by … unless one or more of these sounds suddenly disappears and leaves a void, THEN you notice a a change/lacking in your sonic environment. This example is analogous to music. I encourage people to listen to a wide variety of there favourite songs and try to listen for sounds beyond the main elements. I BET that people will discover sounds they never new were there. I BET that if these sounds were removed for 10 seconds, then restored for 10 seconds, then removed once more, the people would tend to prefer the pleasingly-full arrangement to the more minimalist arrangement (keeping in mind the huge bias they will have to the original versions of their favourite songs). Of course, there are always exceptions to the ‘rule of more than three’, just as there are exceptions to the ‘rule’ of three, but I think it’s important to mention the caveats when presenting the ‘rule of three’ … and yes, I’m mindful that adding caveats would transform a quick tip into a slow tip. Anyway – simply put – I’ve always interpreted the ‘rule of three’ as “the three most important elements should take the stage as the star performers, and any additional elements should be relegated to supporting roles”. That is to say that elements four, five, six etc. must suffer sonic compromise/melodic compromise so that they can support/help the central elements to sing the song. It doesn’t necessarily mean that elements four, five, six etc. must be removed altogether, though this tends to be the practice in dance music because a minimalist mix is often a clear mix.

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