The Rule of Eight – Songwriting and The Story Circle

In other posts we’ve explored the heuristics of music math – simple guidelines that help us approach our work with greater speed and reduced suffering in the creative process. The rule of three shows how we must manage complexity and bandwidth for songs to be effective. Rotating different elements throughout the arrangement allows the music to have more impact. In photography, the rule of thirds is used to manage proportion and balance with composing an image, and in films the three acts (set up, confrontation, resolution) are standard.

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In music, we compose with a similar ratio – but instead of dividing the frame in photography, our canvas is the division of time. Techniques like the golden ratio are useful, but there’s another number based method I’ve coined that can make a huge impact on your songwriting and production work: the rule of eight. You can use the rule of eight to 1) structure the instrumental music of the song, 2) organize the lyric form, 3) brainstorm and unveil the lyric content, and 4) even decide the chord progressions and melodies

As we explored in The Hero’s Journey – The Secret Framework Behind Every Hit nearly all popular stories follow a rigid formula for the arc of their story. In most movies, the character must go through eight stages to provide a compelling and satisfying story: 1) comfort zone, 2) want something, 3) unfamiliar situation, 4) adapt to it, 5) get what they want 6) pay a heavy price 7) return to the familiar 8) having changed. We are so used to the rhythm of these eight story beats it’s practically infused in our collective unconscious, woven deeply into the fabric of our culture from thousands of years of storytelling. If a movie doesn’t hit these eight emotional story beats, it will often fail to connect and resonate with an audience. Amazingly, it also lines up exactly with musical structures.

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Make sure to watch this amazing summary of how Rick and Morty use the story circle

Just like the story circle, all songs typically have 8 sections. Each major section is often composed in 8 bar chunks except for pre-choruses which can often be 4 bars, and many songs have a “middle 8” which is the bridge – providing departure, contrast, and a return to the final chorus. These 8 parts are the core of the song. It’ll obviously have more parts if there’s a third drop, an extended mix, or it’s an 8 minute tech-house excursion.

The rule of eight in music can provide the backbone for your songs in two important ways. Musical structure, and lyrical form. It’s all about the sequence and how the content is structured.  I’ve used the example for a typical big room track:

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1) Musical structure:

1 – Intro
2 – Breakdown 1
3 – Build 1
4 – Drop 1
5 – Breakdown 2
6 – Build 2
7 – Drop 2
8 – Outro

2) Lyrical form: 

1 – Verse 1
2 – Pre-Chorus 1
3 – Chorus 1
4 – Verse 2
5 – Pre-Chorus 2
6 – Chorus 2
7 – Bridge
8 – Chorus 3

These are tried and true methods that have worked for millions of songs. You can even apply the themes of the story circle to each lyrical section, changing how you introduce new details in each verse and pre-chorus.

3) Lyrical content:

1 – Verse 1 – comfort zone (describe the setting)
2 – Pre-Chorus 1 – want something (what is the person looking for?)
3 – Chorus 1 – unfamiliar situation (describe the situation and how they got there)
4 – Verse 2 – adapt to it (how are they changing to deal w/ it?)
5 – Pre-Chorus 2 – get what they want (is this what they really wanted?)
6 – Chorus 2 – pay a heavy price (what did it cost – was it worth it?)
7 – Bridge – return to the familiar (going home, back to everyday life)
8 – Chorus 3 – having changed (how has the person grown?)

This method is a bit more exotic, but it will help you to reveal specific information about the story during each 8 bar section. But aren’t choruses supposed to be the same? Usually yes – so to accomplish this without destroying the story circle, duplicate the stage. Have all chorus lyrics address an “unfamiliar situation” or “a heavy price paid” and stick with it, but on the third chorus tweak it to show how things have changed. You can choose to employ all three story arcs (musical structure, lyrical form, and lyrical content) or just one, but your song will probably be even more meaningful and satisfying if you layer all techniques. The importance is more in the structure of the framework, building tension and release, and making the themes relatable in a sequence that is easy to digest, not making every chorus about paying a heavy price.

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To start using these techniques, use arrangement markers and blank chunks of MIDI to create structure within your sessions. I’ll use a blank 8 bar MIDI chunk to keep things tidy and then arrangement markers for every 8 bars (bonus points for assigning key commands to arrangement markers). Remember that this is a starting point, not an exact science. Use the framework to gather creative momentum and work quickly.

4) Chord progressions and melodies. With every chord progression and melody there are a typically a maximum of eight choices – 7 different chords or notes, and one octave up (excluding inversions, embellishments and secondary chords). Chord cadences help you use chord patterns to build and resolve tension in popular tried-and-true patterns. Think of the 1 chord as home – a comfortable familiar place. What chord progression will take you through a journey and return home? How can you twist this pattern so it slightly surprises people and feels familiar but not cliche?

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You’ll likely never use all twelve notes in the chromatic scale. Limits are your friend, so use this structure to help narrow down the process of creating your chord progression and melody. Without these limits, the possibilities are too vast and endless – so let your ear be your guide. Let the structure pare down your choices and serve the song. The rule of eight is less about the number eight, and more about embracing structure to support your creative ideas. Enjoy and have fun!

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