What Songwriters Can Learn From The 80/20 (Pareto) Principle

There exists a phenomenon in the world called by a number of names, the Pareto Principle, the law of the vital few or the most popular, the 80/20 principle. It’s an interesting observation which states 80% of results will generally come from 20% of the action.

An Italian Guy In His Garden

The idea was first observed and documented by an Italian economist and philosopher Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto. The story goes that he was looking at the pea plants in his garden and he noticed that 80% of the peas produced by the plants came from 20% of the actual pea plants. He started thinking about this idea of the uneven distribution of things and went on to observe that 80% of Italy’s land was only owned by 20% of the Italian population.

Peas Are One Thing, What About Music?

So say I am writing a pop song with a verse, chorus, bridge structure. 80% of what makes that song catchy and memorable probably comes from 20% of the actual song. Take “Pretty Woman” by Roy Orbison for example, the phrase “pretty woman” is repeated 16 times throughout the whole song. That song has a total of 169 words and 20% of 169 is 33.8 words – the phrase “pretty woman” accounts for 32 of those words or 18.9% of the total words. That’s the catchiest bit of that song … and I bet it will be in your head all day now.

Now before you say, hey, that’s just one song buddy! Give me 20 another examples. Remember that it’s about observable patterns not “every popular song must follow the 80/20 rule”. It means that you can look at the whole of something where there is a result of some kind, an affect, and most probably this ratio exists somewhere in the picture.

Not convinced?

Okay, one more example. Fast forward to 1983 and the Billboard Top Hot 100 number 1 song for the year is “Every Breath You Take” by the police. Again, just as a rough gauge, there are 34 lines of lyrics in that song. The main hook melody heard in the first two lines “Every breath you take, every move you make”, accounts for 8 lines throughout the song. It’s the melody that you would sing if you wanted someone to know which song you were talking about. Guess what percentage of the song those lines make up? If you’re math savvy you might already know but if you’re like me and need a calculator it’s 24%.

Not exactly an 80/20 split but I wonder if you analysed the actual melodies in the song rather than my quick little “lines in the song” approach, it might be a little closer to 20%. The thing we’re really interested in focussing on is this idea of the law of the vital few. Or the idea of which smaller things actually account for the majority of the affect in the whole of something.

How Can This Help You As A Songwriter?

I’ve started to piece together some ideas about this and I’ll probably add more as I approach music making and production with this idea in mind. As I’ve already stated, I think as a rule of thumb that you shouldn’t necessarily look at it as a strict 80% to 20% split but think of those numbers as a rough guide when observing this principle. Also, remember that it’s not about shoe horning the principle into what you’re doing but recognising it and then using that knowledge to help guide your decisions.

The Voice

No, not the television reality show. In popular music, which most of us as songwriters are in the business of creating in one genre or another, the vocal line and tone plays a crucial role in a song. Want proof? Listen to a Karaoke version of a really popular track – something missing? Without that melody that song and the instruments therein become a shell of what it is without a vocal line. It’s full and complete in one way but without that melody it’s not quite right. I think this illustrates very clearly the power of the few i.e. the 20% the vocal part makes up in the arrangement of the whole of the song has the 80% of the impact in the song generally.

Backing Without the Backing

I think this is another reasons that instrumental versions of popular songs for sync with film (the vocal removed) don’t really work as well as songs written specifically for film. These purpose written songs contain the melodic elements which help to create interest and emotion in place of a vocal melody being present to do the job. We already know that melody plays a huge part in the whole of the song (that’s why people who are top line writers exist) but hopefully the point above really highlights how important melody is. As songwriters we should be aware of this and using this to our advantage whether we’re writing a pop song with a top line or something instrumental for film or some other sort of sync.

Protect the Melody

Watch out for arrangements that hinders the melody. Learning to have a ruthless confidence to remove parts which blur it or crowd it, even if you’ve spent a bunch of time writing or recording other parts. Serve that lead melody first and have everything else support it.

Why Vocal Tone & Performance Matters 80/20 Style

As YouTube has proven, covers can be hit and miss. We’ve heard those covers that are a nice try but really don’t bring the goods and then those that make you forget the original. Why is that? Well it depends on a few things of course. In our case talking about the 80/20 principle and to keep it simple, if it’s a cover that has the same arrangement as the original then I’d say 80% of the time it’ll be vocalist.

They might have all the chops in the world but if their tone isn’t quite right for the song it just won’t site. It also might be a performance thing. Maybe it’s too perfect, maybe they’re just not connecting with the song like the original artist. The point is that if that 20% is off the rest of the song doesn’t really matter.

It’s a feel thing

I remember going to see some bands recently and one of the band was doing this surf rock/punk type of thing. I could hear what they were trying to emulate – a loose, we don’t care if it sounds like we can’t play our instruments that well sort of punk thing. It didn’t work. The fact of the matter is that the bands they were trying to emulate actually can play their instruments well and work well together at making it sound like they’re just banging it out. It takes skill to sound like you’re loose and punk.

This is true for vocals too, just because it’s an emotional, slightly out of tune in places, kind of vocal take doesn’t mean that you don’t have to work to get it nailed. It’s counter intuitive, but take a listen to artists who’s “thing” that is and you’ll see how good they really are. (Anthony Keidis from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers has made a career out of not being the most pitch perfect front man)

Protecting the Vocal

From a recording perspective you should be spend as much time as necessary getting the best takes possible of the vocal. If the vocal isn’t hitting it, don’t be afraid to go again. Even in music genres where the vocal may not be loud and proud like in pop music and the performance may be about capturing the “imperfections” as much as the beauty. Take the time to get the right take.

The Right Hook

Yes, that is a double entendre.

I want to step away from melody and vocals to take a look at something mentioned earlier in the first two examples. Another element of song writing which packs a punch – there it is – for such a small musical phrase. The hook.

We should already understand the importance of a strong hook in popular music. As we’re talking about the Pareto Principle it’s important to recognise the relationship between the hook to the rest of the song. The hook is often a tiny passage or phrase of music but it leverages great power in making a song an earworm.

We’re not going to talk about writing a great hook, plenty of people have talked about that, what I think is interesting is how such a small part of the overall arrangement and production can have such a huge impact on a track. I think it’s worth taking notice of this when you’re listening to music especially artist that you love and take inspiration from.

As noted earlier in the “Pretty Woman” and “Every Breath You Take” examples some things you should take note of when understanding the hook from an 80/20 perspective:

  • Hooks and count how many times you hear them in a song.
  • Which instruments take the hook and where do they sit frequency wise.
  • At any given time where are the hooks, how do the other instruments support the hooks?
  • When the hook is present what about it keeps your attention? How is the arrangement structured to support and compliment the hook.

Remember a lot of this stuff seems to “just happen” because an experienced producer just “feels it”. They know something is missing and they are good at working out what it is. If you listen intently you start to “get a feel” for those elements too and see this “law of the vital few” start to present itself.

Deeper Listening

When you start looking at songs like this you start to get a feel for the balance and imbalances within a song. You can listen to your own songs (if you’re writing in a popular style) and spot “dead spots”. Listen to other artists tracks and notice the difference in what makes one of their songs really popular and those that are not so popular.

There is no right or wrong in this sense. It’s more about being aware of the deeper structures of songs and what makes some songs more immediately accessible than others.

80/20 Relationships Abound In Songwriting

There are more things I could write about songwriting and music production which illustrate an 80/20 relationship but I think I’ll leave that for a follow up to this post.

I’d love to hear your observations of this principle in the songwriting and music production so feel free to share them below in the comments.

p.s. A good book I’ve recently read (it’s not very long) talks about the “law of the few” and offers some interesting insights which could help your songwriting and production philosophy. You can get is here:

Further reading on this subject: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

The Saddest Thing I’ve Heard Today

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Pablo Picasso

Musicians are sometimes not great at being pragmatic or at least, it’s not our natural leaning. This is especially true when it comes to songwriting.

The Creative Mythos

I think this is in part because there is a mythos around art and the creation of it that is relayed in stories about artists creating their masterpieces. The story goes, in songwriting at least, that the artist creates this iconic song in a moment of profound brilliance and providence, it was so natural and everything came together in some sort of metaphysical epiphany and on the other side they stood there with a song in their hand that went on to become a classic evergreen played on radio forever and a day. Plus, it only took them half an hour to write. Therefore, if you want to write a great song, that’s how you do it because that’s how great songs are written.

I think we like stories like this because they are transcendent. I know I do. There’s nothing wrong with that and I believe it genuinely happens BUT I believe it’s the exception and not the rule. I also think there is also more to the story than that …

The Outliers

I recently read a book called The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In a nutshell it’s about how we make assumptions about people’s success in life without taking into consideration what’s gone on before and how that has affected their ability and circumstances to be successful at something.

One very interesting observation and one that should be quite encouraging and hopefully inspirational (depending on how you look at it) is the experiences of arguably some of the best songwriters in popular music history, the Beatles.

Practice Makes Perfe … Ah, Hit Songs

In Gladwell’s book he points out that the Beatles spent significant time in Homberg, Germany playing music for up to 8 hours per night over the 3 years they worked there. All up he calculates that they spent 1200+ hours playing in those 3 short years. He goes on to point out that this is a phenomenal amount of experience crammed into a very short space of time.

When I think about my own experiences in bands over many years I don’t think I’m even close to playing 1200+ hours live. When I think about it only bands that are touring extensively and for many years rack up those sorts of hours on their instruments as a group and it shows.

Have Melodies, Will Write

Hours of playing aside, I think about the songs they were playing. They were popular songs and they had to know A LOT of them to play for 8 hours at a stretch. Those melodies would have been swirling around in their heads and when it came to write their own songs I can see how it would make it very natural for them to be able to create amazingly catchy pop melodies and arrangements. It’s not mythical and their not superhuman, they had just done a lot of inadvertent practicing.

So what’s my point? Let me tell one more story.

The Saddest Thing I’ve Heard Today

I was talking with another musician from a band I’ve been mastering an EP for recently. These young guys are making some great music both as a band and as individuals. So he was telling me how one of the members of the band wasn’t going to start writing his album until he had a vintage tape machine to record it too. I heard that and was like “What the?! That’s the biggest load of horse fluff I’ve heard”.

Unfortunately this guy was buying into a common and bogus way of thinking about music making. He was waiting for the “the perfect moment” to start making his music. I’ve been there an it’s a bunch of self-sabotaging garbage.

The Time Is Never Right (It’s Always Right)

The truth is, there is no “perfect moment”, most music gets made because people have a goal to write music. Most “great” music gets made because the people writing it have written, and written, and written and they continue to choose the write even when they don’t “feel it”.

Do I believe in providencial moments and the touching of something spiritual in the making of art, you bet, I’ve experienced it myself many times. But I know that when I wait for those moments with nothing in between I won’t create a situation where those moments can happen.

If I don’t have my guitar in my hand at the very least, I’m not even going to be thinking about writing a song. Sure the inspiration might hit when I’m away from my guitar but I know that inspiration is far more stirred up when I’ve been noodling away at a song.

The Myth of The 30 Minute Masterpiece

I think the bottom line is that as songwriters we need to push through and put aside the idea of the “perfect moment” or the perfect song for that matter. Many artists who write evergreen classics didn’t know they were writing them at the time yes they can reflect later and say that it took them 30 minutes to write that and what we get from that story is “songwriting should be easy, natural and happen in this profound moment”. What maybe we should take from that is, wow, that person must have spent hours & years honing their craft to arrive at a moment where this song that not even they realised was going to be a classic got written.

The Songwriting Habit

The lesson for us is if you’re not even writing, you’re not even in the game. If you’re not honing your craft daily you might never get to that moment where it all comes together into something timeless.

So much about being a creative is our headspace. Believing in half-truths and bogus assumptions are some of the biggest stumbling blocks. Building great habits around songwriting and not relying solely on inspiration is key to actually writing great songs.

Remember The Good Times & Cultivate Passion

That’s not to say that it’s a hard slog and just discipline. As Stevie Wonder (who recorded 200 songs in 2.5 years) has indicated, it’s not so much imposed discipline but the passion that drives him.

Cultivating your passion and reminding yourself of how much you enjoy writing and recording music when you don’t feel like it or are discouraged. I can’t count the number of times I’ve not been completely jazzed about hitting the studio but once I’m in here the inspiration and fun of creating starts to bubble up and I’m glad I pushed myself to get writing. I keep those experiences in mind the next time I’m not feeling the studio vibes.

Enough Of The Self-Sabotage

If you’re a songwriter your biggest hurdles isn’t getting creative it’s actually building habits that allow you to be creative. It’s putting a guitar in your hands or a piano under your fingers regularly. It’s about switching on your studio equipment and putting aside a couple of hours to write and record regularly. It’s about finishing a song that last 5% so you can release it and knowing and reminding yourself it’s not nearly as hard as you think. (All of these points I’m reminding myself of too)

You don’t need a vintage tape machine to start recording your music. You don’t need a new guitar. You don’t need to watch that cat/fail video before you get started. You just need to make a start and then make time regularly to work on it. Whether you feel like it or not.

In those moments of habit you will find inspiration, creativity and profoundness. And who knows, you might write a classic song that gets played on radio all the time and then you can tell the story of how it only took you 30 minutes to write.

5 Things to Check Before Sending Mixes for Mastering

Are those mixes nearly done? Just a few more tweaks and they are ready for mastering? Check these 5 things before sending off those mixes:

1. Format

Absolutely stereo .wav or .aiff. 24bit preferrably at 44.1kHz of higher. ABSOLUTELY NO .mp3s .. but if for some reason that is all you have they can be used as a last resort but it is really a big step back in quality.

2. Pops, clicks and edits

I know it’s a drag but going over you regions and checking that they have been faded in or out or crossfaded if a region is overlapping is such a simple thing but can make all the difference. A bad edit will also cause you regret once the music is out there and you can always hear that one little vocal edit that sounds weird. Check them and fix them.

3. Tame The Percussion Lion

Check percussive elements and tame those dynamic peaks. This is especially true for most pop, rock, metal and indie music. If it has drums and you want it to be comparably loud to other songs released commercially then using some limiting and compression to tame those peaks will make a big difference. If I have to do it in mastering it will be compromising the rest of the mix.

4. Get Out Of There

Step outside the room you’re listening in and take note of the volume of the vocal in the mix (if it’s not instrumental). Listen for the snare too, then the kick drum, then the bass guitar and then other elements of the mix. Do any stand out clearly? They probably need to be turned down a dB or two. Could also be an EQ thing. The “outside the room” trick really helps give you perspective on the balance of the mix.

Mono Check 1, 2 …

Check your mixes in mono. Most “fuller” frequency systems are stereo but a large number of smartphones are not. If you’ve got something funky going on in mono people will hear it (just happened to me tonight). Plus it’s just another good way to get more perspective on your mixes.

Bonus Check Point

Listen to the mixes on a small speaker, bluetooth and smartphone. Why? Can you hear the bass? Maybe it needs a little more sculpting with EQ to translate to smaller speakers. Don’t go overboard, it’s always a compromise.

Is the bass blowing out the song on the small speaker? Maybe you need to tame that bottom end on the kick, bass or a synth part. Maybe there is sludgy mud build up in the 200 – 300 Hz range? Try turning the speaker or phone volume so it’s just audible and seeing what the balance is like of all the instruments. What is most prominent? Probably should be the vocal and snare, possibly a secondary melodic part should be there a little quieter too.

There are probably more things I could list (and I probably will) but these will definitely help get your mixes much more master ready than not. Leave your thoughts, comments, suggestions below in the comments.

Gold Coast Open Mic Nights

Ground & Sound
Open Mic Night (Afternoon), 12pm – 4pm Sundays
23 Musgrave Avenue, Labrador, Queensland 4215, Australia
Call: 0426 004 718

Burleigh Town Tavern
Open Mic Night 6:30 pm – 9:30 pm Wednesdays
Cnr Tsipura & Township Drive,
West Burleigh, Qld 07 5576 0077

Open mic @The Kirra Sports Club
22 Appel St, coolangatta QLD
Sunday 1:30 – 5:30pm
Solo, Duo, Band

Here is a list of open mic nights on the Gold Coast. Shoot us a message if you want to add a night to the list or if any details are incorrect.

Venue Night Time Address Contact Phone Email Details
Hard Rock Cafe Surfer Paradise Thur 7pm Cnr. Cavill Ave. & Surfers Paradise Blvd Surfers Paradise, Queensland 4217 Mike Edwards   surfersparadise@hardrockcafe  Pre-registration required.
Hope Island Tavern Wed 8pm 87-97 Broadwater Ave, Hope Island Alex Crook   alexcrookmusic@live.com Beginners welcome. Acoustic Guitar, Bass Guitar & Drums provided. Supportive environment with good vibes!
Fuel At Chevron Sun 2pm  53 Thomas Drive, Surfers Paradise, Queensland  N.A.  (07) 55382122   Great jam, free drinks etc
The Loft  Wed 8pm  54a Thomas Drive, Surfers Paradise, Queensland  N.A.  0406 258 102  info@theloftcheveron.com.au  All musicians welcome
 Kirra Sports Club Thurs  6pm  22 Appel St Kirra, QLD, 4225  N.A.  (07) 5536 7422  admin@kirrasportsclub.com.au  The Jam Session are back by popular demand. Come out and showcase your talent.
 Town and Country Restaurant & Motel  Thurs 7pm  2 Nerang Southport Road, Nerang    (07) 5578 4488   A family friendly venue with a welcoming environment for all people interested in music, whether you’re a pro or just getting a taste for being on stage, come on down.
Jimmez Cafe & Bar Wed 7pm – 10pm  1/25 Pitcairn Way,
Pacific Pines, QLD 4211
 N.A.  (07) 5665 6761