Rules for Breaking Rules
by Monty Harper
Perhaps you’re one of those songwriters who bristle at the very idea of following rules: songs are subjective, so do what makes you happy! Or maybe you’re one who endeavors to write flawless songs, void of any “mistakes.” Either attitude comes with caveats: ignore the rules and you may write an incredibly creative song few will appreciate; follow them too slavishly and you may write a bland song devoid of charm or character.
Likely, though, you fall somewhere in the middle, among those of us who say, “Follow the rules, except when it’s better not to.”
If you’re stuck, or your song isn’t great, could adherence to some rule be the culprit? I would say probably not! Imposed structure is actually a friend to the muse. This is why a blank page seems so daunting; anything could go there. But once you know that what you need is a four-beat line that rhymes with “freed,” ideas pop up like poppy seeds, and words flow forth with facile speed!
I’d argue you’re actually more likely to get stuck or to dislike your song because you’ve broken a rule, which has led you into uncharted or difficult territory. For this reason alone it is wise to learn the rules, learn them well, and generally follow them.
But when is it wise to break the rules? When can thinking outside the rule-box elevate your song? Are there rules for breaking the rules?
Let’s start by acknowledging that not all songwriting rules spring from the same source. Considering the nature of a particular rule can help shed light on whether and when to break it.
Some rules may be self-imposed. Joe McDermott, a songwriter friend of mine, once worked with Stan and Jan Berenstain, creators of The Berenstain Bears, who were mentored by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Joe told me the Berenstains passed along a rule that for young children, perfect rhymes are mandatory. This is because young children are just developing an ear for language, and recognizing rhyming families is an important part of that process.
This rule represented a personal commitment to the needs of a particular audience. It’s not the sort of self-imposed rule you’d ever want to break. But another way to impose a rule upon yourself is by assuming a song has to be a certain way when it doesn’t. Seeing past such an assumption can yield glorious results.
When I wrote the song “Wind Energy,” I started with a list of words and actions involved with turning wind into electricity. I wanted to write a cumulative song, but I couldn’t figure out a refrain because all the key words seemed difficult or impossible to rhyme. My breakthrough came when I reminded myself that a song doesn’t have to rhyme, nor does it have to include a chorus. I wrote out what I wanted to say as simply and directly as I could, and that sentence became the basis for my entire lyric, with no rhymes and no refrain.
Some rules are not individually but collectively self-imposed, i.e. they arise through tradition. Such are the rules that govern song form. Songs generally follow one of a handful of preset structures with some variation. These include “verse/verse/verse,” “verse/chorus,” “verse/chorus/bridge,” and “AABA.” Our brains respond to familiar patterns, so by following the beaten path we write songs that are very accessible, even on the first listen. Yet the particulars of these patterns are somewhat arbitrary; music of other cultures, time periods, or genres follow different forms.
This opens a possibility: with compelling enough content, a song may break form and still remain accessible to the listener. Paul McCartney’s song “Uncle Albert” moves between five distinct musical sections in a unique pattern, fitting no particular song form, and it went to number one on the Billboard charts. One of my most popular songs, “Take Me to Your Library,” follows this odd pattern: ABABABCAB2DCABD. I knew I was breaking convention when I wrote it, but I couldn’t find a better way to tell the whole story, and it works really well!
These renegade songs work because they honor a much deeper rule, the very rule that gives rise to traditional song structure in the first place: in every aspect, a song must strike a balance between repetition and novelty. This rule must never be broken because at its heart it is a statement about the way our brains work. Too much repetition bores us, while too much novelty loses our attention. Some songs are close to one extreme or the other: “The Star-Spangled Banner” is through-composed, with very little repetition to the melody; Harry Nilsson’s “Put the Lime in the Coconut” reached number eight on the Billboard charts as one of the most repetitive songs ever recorded. But I defy you to name a successful song that lies completely at one end of the spectrum!
Another “brain-based” set of rules centers around prosody. The accents in your melody should match the natural emphases given to each syllable of each word. Otherwise, due to the way we process aural language, your lyrics may sound jarring or distracting, or may fail to come across clearly. But this rule seems less central to our enjoyment of a song than the novelty/repetition rule and is often broken for increased freedom of word choice.
Steve Weeks is a children’s songwriter who consistently breaks rules: he often emphasizes the wrong syllables, his lines scan differently from verse to verse, and he uses filler phrases such as “you see” to complete rhymes. According to any songwriting rulebook, Steve Weeks should be struggling, and yet he is a highly acclaimed recording artist whose lyrical style is described as fresh and unique. In fact, many of his songs have climbed the charts on Kids Place Live (satellite radio), including four that went to number one!
How does he get away with all that rule breaking?
First of all, Steve Weeks gets all the other rules right. His songs feature infectious melodies and arrangements, rock-solid choruses and hooks, zany story lines, and heaps of heart. This helps, but what ultimately excuses his rule breaking is his clever word play. In his first few albums, each song is dedicated to a letter of the alphabet. Most of the important words begin with the sound of that particular letter. Steve consistently chooses words that create alliteration, sometimes to the detriment of good prosody, accurate scansion, or impeccable rhyming.
In other words, by breaking selective rules, he has gained the freedom to create something uniquely engaging.
I like to think of this as a kind of slight of hand. The average listener either doesn’t notice, ignores, or forgives a few awkward moments while their attention is drawn to a particularly charming effect. In contrast, it’s sometimes desirable to go big, placing an infraction smack dab in the spotlight where the listener cannot fail to appreciate it.
My song “Love This Baby” is in 4/4 time, with four-line verses that set up an AABB rhyme scheme. Instead of completing the final rhyme at the end of line four as expected, I start the chorus two beats early with a non-rhyming word. By the rules of songwriting, this ought to throw the listener off kilter, leaving them dissatisfied with the resolution of the verse. Why would I do such a thing?
Consider the lyric and you’ll see the reason:
Baby loves bananas. Baby gets well fed.
Then Baby starts to concentrate, and soon her face turns red.
The air becomes so toxic our house plants start to droop!
Baby gets her diaper changed and Daddy gets the...
Love, love, love! How I love this baby!
Instead of confusion, this bait and switch gets a laugh from the audience. Perhaps less obviously, I also hope to drive home the point that changing poopy diapers is one way to love a baby.
Note that I didn’t mess with the end of line two, or the middle of line three. I messed with the end of line four, where the listener’s attention is most focused. This way the unexpected substitution cannot be missed or construed as a mistake; it’s very clear to the listener what I did and why.
In conclusion, I submit to you my ultimate rule-breaking rule: “Never expect your listeners to forgive a broken rule.”
Listeners don’t choose to enjoy your song just to be nice to you. They experience natural reactions—good, bad, or indifferent—and listeners’ natural reactions generally inform the rules of songwriting. So if you’re thinking, “Maybe they’ll forgive this broken rule,” then go back and fix it, because they will not. On the other hand if you’re thinking, “I broke a rule, and that’s why this song is awesome!” then perhaps you created something brilliant, leaving nothing for your listeners to forgive. If so, their reactions will let you know!