Irving Berlin: Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs

  • Article and interview by Frank Ward O’Malley (1875-1932)
  • Originally published in ‘The American Magazine’, Volume 90, October 1920
  • Transcribed by Joe Bennett from the Google Books version, January 2020
Irving Berlin c.1920

JB comment: This semester, I’m very pleased to be teaching one of Berklee’s ‘survey’ classes – History of Rock. As part of the ‘prehistory’ session we look at commercial songwriting in the early part of the 20th century, and during my prep for the class, a helpful musicologist colleague directed me to a 1920 interview with Irving Berlin, in which he provides his ‘Nine Rules’. Although these rules have been quoted and summarized in several books about Berlin’s life, the full text of the original interview was not available online. However, the original magazine from 1920 has been digitized by Google, so I spent some time today manually transcribing it for posterity.

The full article is around 3000 words in length, so for those who just want to read the Nine Rules, I’ve pasted them up front in this blog post, after which you can read the whole piece, with the Rules at the end. In blog form, we have the added benefit of Spotify embeds, so you can hear and download the song he describes “My Wife’s Gone to the Country” (the song and the sheet music are now helpfully out of copyright).

The big question, of course, for any songwriter or musicologist reading this is: do Berlin’s Nine Rules still apply today? I’m sure he would have been pleased to know that 100 years after he gave that interview, songwriters of the 2020s were considering his rules while listening to the popular songs of the day.

Irving Berlin Gives Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs

  • First – The melody must musically be within the range of the average voice of the average public singer. The over-voice professional singer is the song writer’s salesman, the average-voice public his customers. The salesman-singer cannot do justice to a song containing notes too high, too low, or otherwise difficult to sing; and the customer will not buy it.
  • Second – The title, which must be simple and easily remembered, must be “planted” effectively in the song. It must be emphasized, accented again and again, throughout verses and chorus. The public buys songs, not because it knows the song, but because it knows and likes the title idea. Therefore sacrifice lines you are proud of, even sacrifice rhyme and reason if necessary, in order to accentuate the title line effectively.
  • Third – A popular song should be sexless, that is, the ideas and the wording must be of a kind that can be logically voiced by either a male or a female singer. Strive for the happy medium in thought and words so that both sexes will want to buy and sing it.
  • Fourth – The song should contain heart interest, even if it is a comic song. Remember, there is an element of heart-longing in the most wildly syncopated “Ah’m goin’ back to Dixie” darky “rag” ever written.
  • Fifth – The song must be original in idea, words, and music, Success is not achieved, as so many song writers mistakenly believe, by trying to imitate the general idea of the great song hit of the moment.
  • Sixth – Your lyric must have to do with ideas, emotions, or objects known to everyone. Stick to nature – not nature in a visionary, abstract way, but nature as demonstrated in homely, concrete, everyday manifestations.
  • Seventh – The lyric must be euphonious – written in easily singable words and phrases in which there are many open vowels.
  • Eighth – Your song must be perfectly simple. Simplicity is achieved only after much hard work, but you must attain it.
  • Ninth – The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it he must work and work, and then WORK.

A Night At The Opera: The Music of Queen #berklee

On December 5th 2019, Berklee staged its annual Singers’ Showcase, and the theme this year was A Night at the Opera—The Music of Queen. As a lifelong fan, I was honored to be asked to write the program notes for the evening’s performance.

Each song entry features a reference to the original Queen recording, and the official video embedded, plus a description of the approach the students took for the Berklee version. Selected excerpts from the show itself will appear online sometime in the future, but for now you can get a great behind-the-scenes flavour of the quality of the performance by watching Marshall Lilly’s terrific drumcam footage.

The Berklee student performers, with special guest drummer, Berklee President Roger H Brown.
Photograph: Kelly Davidson Studio


Drumcam video: Marshall Tilly

Introduction: “I see a miniature libretto from a fan”

Anatomy Of The Hit: Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’

[This column was originally published on TIDAL.com, and is reproduced here by permission. Words: Joe Bennett]

Anatomy of the Hit: Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy”

TFW you’re driving and you hear a new song on the radio that makes you pull over to hear it better? I’ve had it three times. The first time was Eminem’s “Stan” in 2000. I just had to know how it ended. The second was in 2013, when I thought Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” was a 1970s disco classic I’d somehow missed. And the third was Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” partly because the production was so original, but mostly because the vocal was so, well, disturbing.

Bad Guy audio on TIDAL

Thematically, the song is about relationship power dynamics. For all the machismo of the “you” character, and that upsetting opening violent abuse image in the first line, Billie herself is the titular “Bad Guy.” She can out-scare and out-dare him. If he wants to “take control,” she’ll go along with it, up to a point, but she holds all the cards: if he steps out of line, there will be mama-disappointing, girlfriend-antagonizing, dad-seducing hell to pay. The production throughout supports this theme, balancing the scary and the ironic as Billie’s vocal performance veers between threat and disinterest.

Anatomy of the Hit: Bruno Mars and Cardi B ‘Please Me’

[JB note: This article was originally commissioned by TIDAL, and is part of a series – see links below. Parental advisory: adult themes in the lyrics.]

  • Songwriters: Cardi B / Bruno Mars / James Edward II Fauntleroy / The Stereotypes (Ray Charles II Mccullough, Ray Romulus, Jeremy Reeves, Jonathan Yip)
  • Tempo: 67BPM
  • Run time: 3:21
  • Chord loop: |Bm7    C#7(#5b9) | E/F#    F#7(b9) |
  • TIDAL audio: Please Me

Today, we will be talking more about the music than we will be talking about the sex – I mean, the lyrics. Usually with a song analysis, I try to figure out how the words and music work together, and highlight particular phrases that stand out in the musical arrangement. But given that Please Me is a ‘slow jam’, we don’t want all this musicology to kill the mood, so we will mostly let Cardi’s x-rated rapping (and Bruno’s vocal paroxysms) speak for themselves. TIDAL is all about the fidelity, so along with master-quality audio we’ve included the full, un-bleeped lyric. Insert your own asterisks according to taste.

Eurovision 2019 – live musical analysis

[update – the day after]

I correctly predicted the winner (Netherlands), but my second and third place predictions (Sweden and Australia) were a little further down the list: Sweden was 6th, Australia 9th. Not bad.

Here’s an interactive infographic of the final scoreboard. The final top 9 were as follows (last column shows my prediction):

#CountrySong/artistScoreJB #
1NetherlandsArcade 
Duncan Laurence
492 1
2ItalySoldi 
Mahmood
465 
3RussiaScream 
Sergey Lazarev
369 
4SwitzerlandShe Got Me 
Luca Hänni
360 
5NorwaySpirit in the Sky 
KEiiNO
338 
6SwedenToo Late for Love 
John Lundvik
332 2
7AzerbaijanTruth 
Chingiz
297 
8North MacedoniaProud 
Tamara Todevska
295 
9AustraliaZero Gravity 
Kate Miller-Heidke
285 3

[Original music analysis below]

Welcome to the 2019 Eurovision live musicology blog, now in its ninth year. This site has provided live (or pre-live) music analysis of the ESC final every year since 2011, previously during the UK live broadcast. Since 2016, the text has been written from Boston USA, 5 hours behind UK time and, this year, 7 hours behind Tel Aviv, where the show takes place.

The Contest can be watched on YouTube, and across many European and US networks and time zones. Parts of the blog post are typed as-live, but I’ve uploaded everything in advance so you can follow along with the show. For any non-Europeans who are unfamiliar with Eurovision, the Wikipedia page gives a great overview.

As before, I have posted predictions of the winners before the voting begins. 2015 is the only year so far that all three were correct, and in the correct order, but I’ve gotten close with the top few most of the time.

This year I’m including more of the chord loops, so that keyboard/guitar people can play along. These chords are transcribed at speed, and are sometimes slightly simplified for text purposes (e.g. there aren’t always 2nd/3rd time bars etc).

And, as always, I recommend music creative types (particularly songwriters and producers) read Milton Mermikides’ excellent Deux Points’ article, which gives top tips on how to write those fair-to-middling low-scoring ‘Euro-formula’ songs. As you listen to tonight’s show, look out to references to the Aeolian mode aka natural minor scale (in music generally, the least exotic of all the minor scales; in Eurovision terms, an essential signifier of cultural and emotional authenticity).

My predictions – (added before voting begins)

  • Winner: Netherlands
  • 2nd place: Sweden
  • 3rd place: Australia

1 Malta: Michela: Chameleon

  • BPM:   98        Key:     Bbm
  • Verse: | F | Bbm / / (Gb) | F | Gb |
  • Pre: | Gb Bbm | Db Ab | Gbmaj7 Db | Ab | x2
  • Chorus:            F | Bbm | F | Gb | x 2

Anatomy of the hit: Ariana Grande’s ‘7 rings’

Anatomy of the Hit: Ariana Grande’s “7 rings”
Fact_File

As a music theory geek, I love to get inside songs and figure out why we like them. There’s something beautiful about the ability of a mainstream hit to bring people together. And when the songwriter and singer is as extraordinary a talent as Ariana Grande, we can be sure we’re putting the very finest pop product in our ears.

So let’s dive in, intro first, middle bit in the middle, and outro at the end, as has been the way since the dawn of time.

TIDAL video

Intro – 8 bars [0:00]

We hear a single reverbed synth sound playing half notes, with occasional 8th note passing notes, and no indication of what’s to come. That’s sparse, even for a trap-pop intro. At this point, we don’t even know if we’re hearing 140BPM (fast pop) or 70BPM (slow ballad).

Popular Music Education: Foreword

The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education

This post is taken from my foreword to The Bloomsbury Handbook of Popular Music Education: Perspectives and Practices (Bloomsbury, 2019). Editors: Zack Moir, Bryan Powell, Gareth Dylan Smith. Used by permission.


Popular Music Education. These three words, even though they have been at the center of my professional life for more than 25 years, continue to challenge and intrigue me because each one generates questions. What do we mean by ‘Popular’? Popular with whom, and for how long? Popular in the sense of widely distributed, or in the sense of culturally influential? When we say ‘Music’, which music… and whose music? The consensus reached long ago in conservatoires about the centrality of the European ‘common practice period’ has no easy parallel in PME, and popular music has evolved into so many forms and sub-genres that it is arguably impossible for any teacher or student to have knowledge of it all. And when we talk about ‘Education’, what, exactly, are we teaching? PME in high schools and in higher education deals variously with listening, performing existing music, creating original music, music technology, the commercial music industry, and (often controversially) the history of various canons, styles and traditions. Which of these should we choose to teach? Each answer to these questions breeds further questions. If we decide that our curriculum supports creativity, then our students will probably need to be songwriters, the song being the dominant creative product in most popular music. But how does one build a suitable grading framework for songwriting, when songs represent personal expression? What if the teacher’s definition of a good song is different from the student’s?