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. So say I start recording a song that takes me 20 hours in total to record the majority of the song (the 80%) will come together in about 4 hours (the 20%). It’s not a hard and fast law as much as it’s an observation of where the majority of a given result comes from.

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.

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. 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.

The Voice (Not The TV Show)

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 instrument therein become a shell of what it is with them. 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 of the whole of the song has the 80% of the impact of 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. Melody plays a huge part in the whole of the song so as songwriters we should be aware of this and using this to our advantage.

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 recording the other parts, teaches you to serve the vocal/melody first.

Protecting the Voice

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.

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.

Vocal Tone & Performance

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.

The Hook

Let’s step away from the vocals and look at another element of songwriting which packs a punch for such a small music phrase.

In most popular music we should already understand the importance of a strong hook. 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.

Take note of:

  • 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.

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

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