photo by Niklas Morberg
An interesting rule-of-thumb I read about in an interview with a composer was to try to have 7-8 major moments in a piece of music. (Unfortunately it was long ago and I can no longer find the source.)
The details were not specific, but I take this to mean both seven-to-eight main sections and/or seven-to-eight special events.
Why 7-8? The number might be a little arbitrary, although seven has come up as an important number in religion, literature and art for centuries. Seven seems like a good balance between few and many, between simple and complex.
How is this helpful to keep in mind? Simply put, it’s a handy way to make sure you have enough happening to keep your listener interested. For example in a 3 minutes piece, it ensures that you have something significant happening every twenty to thirty seconds that will keep people engaged.
This rule-of-thumb also helps you add length by forcing you to think about how many sections you have. If the piece you are working on is feeling a bit short, or you just aren’t really sure how to keep things going, be conscious of trying to get to seven or eight main segments. This might mean you need a secondary theme, or you need a bridge/contrasting section. Or maybe there’s room for a lengthy intro or outro. Whatever the solution, keeping the number seven in mind can help you expand appropriately.
What are some examples of “major moments”?
- When the whole band drops out and there’s nothing but four piece a cappella
- The first entrance (or return) of an instrument or section (solo trumpet, epic drums, choir, etc.)
- A modulation
- A rhythmic break
- The first entrance (or return) of a major theme
- A unique hook or cool lick (not just a repetitive ostinato)
- A big boom or other special sound effect
You could also use this idea to structure your piece into 7-8 distinct sections.
For example: Introduction, A theme, B theme, return of A theme, bridge/episode/C theme, final return of A, coda.
Or a standard pop song form: Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus
I don’t remember this “rule” every time I write, but just like the “Rule of Three” I think it is an interesting guide for creating well proportioned and effective work.