Are There ‘Rules’ in Songwriting/Music Production?

This is a topic that has been debated for centuries: Are there ‘rules’ when it comes to music? Can anyone make any old sound and call it ‘music’? Is it ‘snobbish’ or ‘elitist’ to say there are rules in music? And what actually defines ‘music’ in the first place, as opposed to noise and other sounds?

As I said, these questions have been debated for centuries, and a single article probably isn’t going to be the most groundbreaking answer ever given. Fortunately, that’s not my intention in writing this article.

I’m going to give you my opinion on whether there are ‘rules’ in songwriting and music production, and give you the reasons why I hold to those opinions. I’ll also try to see and represent the other side of the argument.

You’re totally free, as your own person, to agree or disagree with these opinions. I’m not claiming to be the ‘ultimate authority’ over music; or that you must agree with me, otherwise your music isn’t worth listening to. THAT would be ‘snobby’.

Everything in this article is purely my own opinion, and I don’t claim to speak for anyone else.

Hopefully it provides you with, at the least, something to think about, no matter where you stand on the issue.

The Laws Of Music

In my opinion:

There are both ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ elements when it comes to music. Without getting too philosophical, ‘objective’ means things that are true for everyone and everything, whereas ‘subjective’ means down to personal opinion or preference. In music, both of these things are found.

Objective Elements

The objective elements are what we would call the ‘rules’ of music. These are the things that are necessary to even call the work ‘music’ in the first place. It’s what separates ‘music’ from things like noise or other sounds.

So what are these ‘objective rules’? What are the things that define music? In my opinion, it consists of these things:

  1. Patterns. Music must have repeatable patterns that the human brain can recognise and latch on to. This is the opposite of noise, which is completely random and unpredictable, without any clear patterns.
  2. Pleasant to the ear. Music must be nice to listen to, or at the very least, evoke an emotion that we can connect to. This is why we use musical instruments, such as guitars or pianos. They produce a nice tone that our ear loves to hear. Things like cars or factory machines produce unpleasant noises that we don’t want to hear, but rather just ‘put up with’.
  3. Composition. Music should have a composition, a ‘structure’ that is followed that takes the listener on a journey. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end, like a story. Noise doesn’t have this – it doesn’t follow a ‘structure’, but rather, is just produced by something, and thrown into the world without any care.
  4. Evokes emotion. When a person listens to music, some sort of emotion is evoked. People listen to happy music, and people listen to sad music. Songs are created to connect people together through a certain feeling or vibe. Noise doesn’t have an emotional attachment to it – it’s just sort of ‘there’.

These things come together to create what we call ‘music’. Without these 4 concepts, can you really tell the difference between ‘music’ and ‘noise’? I don’t believe so.

These are the ‘objective’ rules of music. They must be followed if you want to create something that people connect with and enjoy listening to. They apply to all genres and all styles, in all eras, of music.

Subjective Elements

The ‘subjective’ elements of music are things like genre, instruments used, lyrics, mood & vibe, and tempo. These are things which are purely down to personal preference.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of genres in music. All genres follow the objective rules, but other than that, they are unique in their own way. This is where our personal preference comes in. Somebody may love country music, another person may hate it, and a few are indifferent.

Countless instruments have been invented and used in songs throughout the centuries. As a producer, whether you use a guitar or piano in your track is purely down to whatever you like more. There’s no ‘rule’ here.

All music follows the objective rules, which is what makes it ‘music’. Everything else is subjective, down to personal preference; which is what allows for variety and difference. All songs follow the objectives, but sound completely different because of the subjectives.

More Like ‘Guidelines’ Than Actual ‘Rules’

It’s important to remember that these ‘rules’ aren’t exactly set in stone. They’re not commandments sent down by the Almighty Music God.

Think of them as ‘guidelines’. They exist to guide you; to help you, not to burden you. They’re not meant as a hammer to beat you over the head with if you disobey, but rather as a map that you can follow to reach the end goal of creating music.

It’s not the end of the world if you accidentally break a guideline, or don’t follow it in some way. But they will certainly help you if you follow them.

Breaking The Rules

Of course, if the rules aren’t really rules but ‘guidelines’, that means they can be broken. And by ‘broken’, I mean intentionally, with purpose, rather than accidentally. You can go off the grid, to create something unique.

But there’s an important caveat here.

The guidelines exist for a reason. Centuries of toil and hard work have been spent to create them.They have a myriad of evidence backing them up. Going against the music guidelines, while allowing for more freedom and creativity, also means stacking the odds against you. More risk is involved. More things can go wrong.

To break the rules, you first have to know them. Further than that, you have to understand them.

If you want to break the objective rule that ‘music should have patterns’, for example, it’s not enough to know that music should have patterns. You must know why music should have patterns. You need to know why the human brain loves listening to patterns.

If you don’t get this, and you break the rule, you’ll create something that nobody can understand or connect to. You’ll create a ‘wall of noise’. And nobody loads up Spotify to listen to a ‘wall of noise’ (well, no sane person does, anyway).

If you do understand why we love patterns, you can break the rule and compensate for it in other areas.

This is an extremely advanced concept, and very few people succeed when doing it. Even the greatest and most creative songwriters and music producers of all time tended to followed the guidelines.

My advice to you is that if you don’t fully understand the ins and outs of the guidelines, or if you are relatively new and inexperienced, you should just follow them. Trust me, they exist for a reason, and they will save you a ton of frustration and annoyance.

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