Years ago I walked into Jack Joseph Puig’s studio at Ocean Way during a GRAMMY producers and engineer’s event. He had one of the most magical Willy Wonka looking studios I’ve ever seen, piled high with custom gear and mood lighting throughout. But his biggest tip was “The human ear can only hear three things at once.” It was a quote that would echo with me nearly every day afterwards.
When we make music it’s tempting to pile on layer after layer, especially when you aren’t finding the right synth preset or instrument type. We stack and stack until the track sounds full, but often we are just masking a bad instrument/sample choice or a weak idea like a bad melody, a cliche lyric, or a chord progression that isn’t catchy. Often times I’ll be bouncing down stems for remixers and I’ll notice wrong MIDI notes in the bassline or lead, and I couldn’t even hear it in the final mix! A busy mix doesn’t benefit anyone – going overboard will actually make the song sound smaller, as all the bandwidth fills up.
The rule of three is one of the most crucial aspects of making music you’ll ever encounter, and one of the most difficult to master. It’s what separates hit records from the rest of the pack. You’ll hear the rule of three in nearly every pop record, but you have to actively listen for it. Everyone says to keep it simple – but this is vague, general advice. You need to pare down the elements and rotate them relative to the arrangement of the song, rather than overloading the listener. The brain simply cannot distinguish more than three unique musical elements happening at the same time. It’s a matter of cognitive load – your brain is overwhelmed. Beyond these three, you are just adding parts that will clash and distract from the main leads. When it sounds like four parts happening at once, the phrasing is often taking turns or breaks with another element. Four would be the absolute max, and aiming for three elements is ideal.
Sticking to the Rule of Three can dramatically improve your songwriting, mixing, mastering, and overall creative flow – so let’s examine some ways to put it to work using trios/duos/solos, rotation, double identities, lead swapping, and various mix techniques
Trios, Duos, and Solos
The most common combination of musical elements in a chorus are Trios: DRUMS / CHORDS / LEAD. We’ll consider the BASS as part of the chord voicing, since they are typically the root notes and not a distinctly different phrase, but you could also call it the 4th layer. The lead is either a vocal or instrumental. The chords can be just an arpeggio or background vocals that form a chord progression.
In a verse, or bridge you’ll often see Duos: two elements like VOCAL / BASS, or VOCAL / CHORDS, rather than three – or in EDM you’ll often have drops w/ DRUMS / LEAD combos.
In transitional moments like drum fills, it’ll often be a solo, as other elements will mute to call attention to the transition. I call this “change before change.” which is useful for anticipating the next section. This allows the build to be the build and narrow the listener’s attention. In the past there were drum, guitar, and synth solos – which fell out of favor in recent popular music, but who knows – maybe they’ll be back.
Think of your song as a Rubik’s cube with four layers. You can rotate the cube and decide which element is currently active in the arrangement: DRUMS, CHORDS, LEAD, BASS, or EMPTY. As the song progresses from the verse to the chorus, you might spin the active elements so they swap with something else. Swap the drums for the chords, swap the lead vocal for the lead synth, swap the drums for the bass. This keeps the song balanced and the listener actively engaged. This will keep you from having competing leads that step on each other, and music that is too layered and complex.
There are many times when the kick can be the bassline (see EDM), and the bass can be the lead (see Oliver Heldens*). These are effective uses of the rule of three because they combine two or more elements into one distinct sound or phrase. Grouping these sounds together creates power and impact. *Check out how Wombass uses a rule of two, and the vocal version “The Right Song” uses the rule of three. Check out this Spotify playlist I put together than highlights successful songs using these techniques.
Mute and raise:
Find layers in your mix that are low in the mix and taking away energy and focus, and mute them. If you don’t miss them, then raise the volume of the other tracks and push them hard!
Try soloing different combinations of elements and see what works. It’s easy to loop a dense section of a song and miss out on ideas sparked by selecting unique combinations of individual parts. Try creating custom macros for quickly auditioning different busses and groups with simple keystrokes.
Filling the space:
As you simplify the number of distinct musical phrases, this will create a void in the sound. Fill this space with distortion, reverb, and delays – and make sure to sidechain your elements so everything works together. Distortion is very useful for forcing you to write simpler melodies and chord voicings, because the added harmonics and sustain quickly become dissonant with complex phrases. Heavy distortion will actually be creating a chord within a lead, so know when to pull pack, or use it to your advantage!
Strip it down to acoustic:
If you’re not making progress with a song, stop adding layers and just strip it back to the essentials. Get away from the computer and play it on the piano, a Wurlitzer, or an acoustic guitar, and sing the vocal yourself. The simplicity of these essential songwriting tools will help guide you in the right direction, because you can actually hear the “bones” of the song again. This basic structure will improve the decision making process, and your creative flow will ramp back up again.
I love combining a simple vocal and bass line – this can be really effective. Listen to the latest Rihanna and Drake records – there are barely any chords in there, yet the songs sound full.
Filter the bus: Use lowpass filters on the busses especially in verses. This is a quick way to sweep around and hear what elements can be stripped down. Also try bandpass filters.
Carve the side chains: Use sidechains to duck the volume so each element can be loud, but gel with the other tracks. Try using the inverse of the kick drum or competing element.
Chop the tails: flatten your waveforms and visually chop the tails so elements don’t overlap
Categories and elements:
– BLANK / NONE
– SYNTH CHORDS – SUSTAINED OR STABS
– RHYTHM GUITAR
– BGROUND VOCAL CHORDS
– LEAD VOCAL or SPOKEN WORD
– LEAD GUITAR
– LEAD SYNTH
– VOCAL HARMONY
– SECONDARY LEAD SYNTH
– BASS LINE
– DRUMS / BASS / VOCALS
– DRUMS / BASS / LEAD SYNTH
– DRUMS / ARPEGGIO / VOCAL
– DRUMS / CHORDS / BASS
– DRUMS / CHORDS / LEAD
– DRUMS / LEAD SYNTH
– DRUMS / BASS
– BASS / VOCALS
– DRUM FILLS
– LEAD SYNTH
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