How to Write a Good Song: The Multiples of Four Rule

We’ve already talked about the importance of structure to write a good song. There’s another very very simple rule you can follow to write a good song. It still concerns structure in some way, but doesn’t really have a name so I call it the Multiples of Four rule.

We don’t write music as one really long stream of notes. Music is divided in chunks called bars (or measures). A bar groups a certain number of beats together; most pop music today sounds like 1-2-3-4 and is generally in 4/4. Without going too much into the theory of music, the point is that you need to be able to count the bar in order to identify how many bars there are before a change occurs in the song.

Spoiler alert: there is a change every 4, 8, 16, etc. bars (multiples of four!) 

That’s it. Every 4, 8, 16 etc. bars, something happens, whether it’s the introduction of a new part or simply a drum fill that wasn’t there before. Our ears are accustomed to the change every 4 or 8 (or multiples) bars, not every 5 or 7. If it doesn’t happen, we immediately know something is off, even if we can’t place what. Sometimes 2 bar blocks can occur but they’re placed carefully and when there’s the intention of making the song sound a little off on purpose. The blocks are always even.

I can’t say this happens in every single song because I unfortunately haven’t analysed every single song on the face of the Earth. However, I’m pretty sure I can make an educated guess.

The rule is so hardwired into our system that we mostly apply it without even realising it. However, when we try to write a good song and realise something sounds off, it’s best to go back and check the structure.

Let’s take a look at some famous examples and see how the rule applies.

1) John Lennon – Imagine

If anyone can write a good song, it’s John Lennon. For this super famous song I’m not going to use the terms Verse and Chorus because they don’t exactly fit the song. We’re not really talking about classic structures here, so I’m just going to use part A and B. If you listen along, you will notice that there’s always some sort of cue that tells you that a new part is about to start, whether it’s a new instrument, a drum fill or an interruption of the music.

  • Intro – 4 bars
  • Part A (Imagine there’s no heaven…) – 8 bars
  • Part B (Imagine all the people…) – 4 bars
  • Part A (Imagine there’s no country…) – 8 bars
  • Part B (Imagine all the people…) – 4 bars
  • Part C (You may say I’m a dreamer…) – 8 bars
  • Part A (Imagine no possessions….) – 8 bars
  • Part B (Imagine all the people…) – 4 bars
  • Part C (You may say I’m a dreamer…) – 8 bars
2) Blink 182 – I Miss You 

This one is a little bit strange, because it has a sort of preparatory 2 bar intro before the actual intro and a couple of 2 bar blocks. They definitely wanted the song to sound a little strange though, so everything is done on purpose and it’s done very well! I’m a little on the fence about this one, because if you count it in double time it takes you straight back to the rule. Let’s look at it more in detail.

  • Pre-Intro – 2 bars, just rhythm
  • Intro – 12 bars, a new instrument (piano) comes in after 4 bars
  • Verse (Hello there…) – 12 bars
  • Coda of the verse (Instrumental + “I miss you”) – 8 bars, instrumental with new elements, serves as an intermission between the two verses
  • Pre-Verse – 2 bars, like the pre-intro
  • Verse (Where are you…) – 16 bars, no coda, different voice and introduction of new instruments and other elements
  • Chorus (Don’t waste your time on me…) – 8 bars, new melody which actually reprises the instruments and melody in the coda of the verse
  • Coda of chorus – 2 bars, as the pre-intro
  • Instrumental bridge – 8 bars, sounds like the intro
  • Final Chorus – 16 bars
  • Coda – 16 bars, new elements every 8 bars (listen to the piano!), then finally fades out
3) Paul Kalkbrenner – Sky and Sand

Once again, verse and chorus don’t really work for this song so I’m going to use A and B.

Intro – 8 bars

  • Part A (In the nighttime…)  – 16 bars, voice comes in with a very minimal backing
  • Part B (And we build a castle…) – 16 bars, new instruments
  • Instrumental drop – 32 bars
  • Part A (In the daytime…) – 16 bars, voice is back with variations
  • Part B (And we build a castle…) – 16 bars
  • Instrumental – 16 bars, completely different, no percussions

 

As you can see, all of these songs group their parts into even bars, mostly groups of 4, 8, 16 or 32. If you listen carefully, you will hear small changes within the groups mostly every 4 or 8 bars, with bigger changes every 16 bars. Following the Multiples of Four rule will help you write a good song which will resonate with your listeners.

Have you ever thought about this rule and do you apply it to your music?

 

 

 

 

 

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