Songwriting

Melody and The Power of Three

by Clay Mills
Sep 27, 2021

In storytelling, there is a principle called “The Rule of Three.” This principle points to the tendency for plays, movies, and stories to have three repeating or related elements. Stories and plays usually have three acts. In fairy tales, the hero is often granted three wishes. In the story, “The Three Little Pigs,” the big bad wolf visits three different pigs’ houses. I believe it’s true, we tend to receive and retain stories better with a beginning, middle, and end.

The power of three goes well beyond storytelling: the Biblical Holy Trinity, three-sided pyramids of Egypt, Three Ringed Circus, three primary colors.

The list goes on and on and on, because there’s something about groupings of three that appeal to the human mind. And so, too, the power of three hooks the ear in music.

A few examples of the musical power of three include song titles from Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA album.

line+3 technique and Springsteen

Half of the songs on this iconic rock album employ three-syllable titles:

“Cover Me”

“Downbound Train”

“Bobby Jean”

“Glory Days”

“My Hometown”

Springsteen clearly taps into the power of 3 in his songs. His success speaks for itself.

Line+3

I’ve made it a life-long obsession to search for timeless melodic devices—techniques that work in every genre, in any decade of music. And I’ve made good use of these discoveries over my career to write genre-crossing hits. If you ask me to choose one device that hooks the listener more than any other, it would be Line+3. This is part of a complete system I teach in my masterclasses called: Line+. 

Line+3 is a song pattern using rhythm, rhyme, and melodic repetition to make songs better.

To understand exactly what Line+3 is, let’s look at an excerpt from my book Mastering Melody Writing that highlights several decades of music…

Listen to the finale from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” (The one with the cannons.) If you still don’t know how this music goes, find it and listen, please!

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da . . . dum, dum, dum

Do you see it (and hear it)? Three beats clumped together at the end of a line of 16th notes and repeated:

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da . . . dum, dum, dum

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da . . . 1,      2,      3

Even when it changes notes, it repeats the same rhythmic pattern:

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da . . . dum, dum, dum

Da-da-da-da-da-da-da . . . dum, dum, dum

The Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” the most covered song of all time, has a number of three-note accented rhyming sections:

Yesterday

All my troubles seemed so… faraway

Now it looks as though theyre…heretostay

Oh, I believe in…Yesterday

One of the best examples of Line+3 from the disco era is “Never Gonna Give You Up” with Rick Astley singing. It uses the classic tresillo, or triplet, feel at the end of the chorus vocal lines. And yes, you are about to be Rick-Rolled!

Never gonna… giveyouup

Never gonna…letyoudown

Never gonna…runaround 

And desert you

Never gonna…makeyoucry

Never gonna…saygoodbye

Never gonna…tellalie

And hurt you

I like to think of these types of melody patterns as two separate parts: the “Line” followed by the “3.”

Never gonna… giveyouup

Never gonna…letyoudown

Or…

Never gonna…1-2-3

Never gonna…1-2-3

Often, the three notes that end each line are syncopated, but they don’t have to be. The Tchaikovsky example had three “straight” accented notes at the tail of each line. It’s still equally hooky. 

Now that you’re in on the Line+3 secret, I encourage you to experiment with this pattern in your own music.

Using the pattern and the power of three will help make your songs more memorable, and hopefully, leave your audiences humming your songs all day long. Make it a point to listen for this pattern whenever you hear music. You’ll find plenty of contemporary examples of Line+3 from country music’s Eric Church singing “‘Round Here Buzz” to pop sensation NF and his song “Let You Down.”  

If you want to learn more about other hooky Line+ combinations, check out Mastering Melody Writing: A Songwriters Guide to Hookier Songs With Pattern, Repetition, and Arc.

Until next time, Write on! 

Clay

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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