Did you ever think a 19th century Italian economic philosopher could teach you how to write better songs? Neither did I until I read about the pareto principle.

So what is this 80/20 principle?

This phenomenon goes 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?

Okay, I know, you came here for the songwriting advice.

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.

It means that you can look at the whole of something that has a strong effect and this ratio will exists somewhere. Probably multiple times. In our case this is especially true of popular songs which resonate (have an effect) on people.

Not convinced?

Okay, one more example. Fast forward to 1983. The Billboard 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

Categories: Music Mixing


Songwriter, Music Producer & Mix Engineer. Music is what I love to be working on. I have my own recording studio here on the Gold Coast where I work on my own music and others.


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