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.

[JB comment – do Berlin’s rules still apply today? Let’s test them against two playlists – one from the 1920s, and one from 2020.]


Full Article: Irving Berlin Gives Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs

[Content warning – in the interview, Berlin uses what would today be considered racially problematic expressions. In the interests of faithfulness, I have included these verbatim; they should be read with an understanding of historical/linguistic context. Berlin was, himself, an immigrant, and he appears to celebrate and value the diversity of 1920s America].

[original 1920 caption by Frank Ward O’Malley]
Although only in his twenties, Irving Berlin is the most popular song writer in the world. He was brought to this country as a child, his father and mother being poor Russian immigrants. Almost before he was out of knickerbockers he became the main support of the family, earning a pittance by singing in the cheap joints of New York’s Chinatown. Today he is rich and famous, but he has won his success – and continues to win it – by everlasting hard work. Many of his songs, as, for instance, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” have taken both this country and Europe by strong. In the article beginning on the opposite page, Berlin gives an extraordinary account of how he writes songs for the millions.

You may take it on the word of young Mr. Irving Berlin, the most successful song writer living or that has ever lived, that you are all wrong when you think the phrase “sold for a song” is synonymous with the word worthlessness.

By way of proof he will cite instances, in these days of enormous sales of “sheet music” and big royalties from phonograph records and self-playing piano rolls, where just one popular song has piled up gross earnings amounting to more than half a million dollars.

He will show you further that often these financially tremendous song successes are written by young men of Russian birth or blood – lads who were born and grew to maturity amid the abject poverty, squalor, and dense ignorance of the poorest sections of the East side of New York City, or who spent their boyhood years there, after having been brought from Russia in early childhood, as Mr. Berlin himself was, by immigrant parents.

“The syncopated, shoulder shaking type of vocal and instrumental melody, which now has been dignified internationally as ‘Typical American music,’ says Mr. Berlin, “is not wholly, or even largely, or African origin, as is popularly supposed. [Problematic sentences follow – ed] Our popular song writers and composers are not negroes. Many of them are of Russian birth or ancestry.  All of them are of pure white blood.  As in the case of everything else American, their universally popular music is the product of a sort of musical melting pot. Their distinctive school is a combination of the influences of Southern plantation songs, of European music from almost countless countries and of the syncopation that is found in the music of innumerable nationalities – found even in the music of the old master composers of music of classic model. Therefore, those who label our popular dance and song music as ‘typical American music’ hit the bull-eye in so naming it. For it is the syncopation of several lands and centuries ‘Americanized’.

The dark-eyed youngster, still almost a boy in years and seemingly destined to be a boy forever at heart, who makes these assertions presents in his own quick rise to success a concrete demonstration of “typical American” qualities.

Slightly more than a dozen years ago, Irving Berlin, then just out of knicker-bockers, was trying to support his widowed mother, his little sisters, and a small brother – all pitifully poor – by working as a ‘singing waiter’ in Chinatown, New York City, picking from the floor of “Nigger Mike’s joint” the small coins tossed to him by raucous patrons to whom he sang as he served them all night with beer and whiskies. Incidentally, the hat he wore then was size seven and one-quarter.

On a night, about ten years later, the foremost figures of England’s dramatic and musical world and of England’s “smart” society were enthusiastically acclaiming him at a pretentious banquet in London’s most fashionable hotel. He wore a seven and one-quarter size hat comfortably on that night, too – and also the morning after.

On a recent evening, when I talked with him until long after midnight in his New York home about the fundamentals of his great success, I was impolite enough to make a somewhat minute mental appraisal of the beauties and the lovely simplicity of the things which the one-time “singing waiter” boy had gathered about him – the few but sufficient paintings by Inness and other great figures in American art; the absence of garishness in lights and furnishings; the simple elegance of his table appointments and the perfection of the service; the carved ivories from France and the Orient; the autographed editions of famous books; the set of Shakespeare for which a note collector had offered hum, unsuccessfully, many thousands of dollars, a “Short Life Of Lincoln” in which the original hand-written letters, penned by mighty figures of Civil War Days, even original manuscripts by Lincoln himself, had been bound into the volumes. All all these rare and beautiful things were “bought for a song”.

More marvelous still was the realization that here was a young man who had spent the working hours of his formative years amid the most dangerous, degraded, and almost always degrading influences to be found in any slums anywhere, but who had managed by sheer force of will to come forth a paragon of sobriety, modesty (Continued on page 239), right living, and right thinking, exceptionally “well bred”, industrious, very rich, internationally famous before passing into his thirties – and still wearing a seven and one-quarter-size hat!

Nor has be any warped notions about the intellectual worth of the kind of thing he writes, or of his own place in his particular field. He frankly admits he knows next to nothing about harmony or the technical niceties of versification.

He tells you that when he has completed the melody of one of his songs he must employ a trained musician to transcribe the notes to paper. Mr Berlin plays a bar or two of the song, and then pauses until the hired musician has jotted the notes down; another brief strain, another phrase, and so on until the last note of the composition has been recorded.

But Irving Berlin is past master of several big fundamentals: He is of the crowd, and has a genius for knowing what the crowd wants. To his innate gifts he has added a comprehensive knowledge, gained by thoughtful study of his own and other’s [sic] failures and successes, and by close observation of the public’s likes and dislikes. Out of this knowledge he has evolved certain rules which, he insists, must always be followed by the writer of popular songs.

High on his list of ideas is the truism which he quotes so frequently: “inspiration is ninety per cent perspiration.”

“I feel certain I’ve written more failures than any other song writer on earth,” he says. “But I write more failures because I write more songs than anyone else does.

“And nobody appreciates more than I do how bad some of my lyrics are in the matter of technical details. I’ve rhymed ‘Aida’ with ‘sweeter.’ I’ve done worse than that, especially back in my inexperienced days. The lyric of my biggest money maker of all, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band,’ is simply terrible! Some of the biggest hits I;ve written were songs I was so ashamed of that I pleaded with the heads of music houses not to publish them. But none of my technical errors have been due to laziness of slipshod methods. My job is writing popular songs, not writing models of technical perfection. I’d like to ‘put them over’ in forms pleasing to the high-brow as well as to the general public, if for no other reason than the practice one of adding all the high-brow to the rest of my music-buying public. But, first of all, I must make my songs popular.

“Almost everybody – your ice man, butcher’s biy, the grocery clerk, anybody! – has in him the making of some sort of lyric, which, if properly developed, would not only make him independently rich,  but would keep a song-publishing house going successfully, on the earnings of just that single song, for a whole year – and a song publisher’s business expenses run often as high as forty or fifty thousand dollars a month [editor’s note: in 2020 dollars, $500,000-$650,000/mo].

“Everybody has the makings of a great song hit in him, because everyone hears sentences and catches phrases, or originates snatches of refrains, quite as good as those which the experienced song writer uses as the groundwork of a colossal hit.

“I estimate that there are today at least a quarter of a million Americans earnestly trying to write popular songs – but not earnestly and intelligently enough to win. What is the result of all this mis-directed effort? Why, if a year brings five or six successes of the kind the publishers know as ‘natural song hits’ – the sort of song that just explodes into success without advertising or ‘plugging’ – the music publishing world gives three rousing cheers.

“The whole trouble is that the ice man, the newsboy, and the highly technical writer of polished verse rarely know, or try to learn, the rules of the big game of writing popular songs.

“The would-be song writer must follow the rules if his song is to be popular. He must follow the rules till the sweat pours off him. There isn’t a night in the year – I have the habit of working all night instead of all day – that I don’t write all, or a great part, of a song, literally by the sweat of my brow.

“Ambitious lads ask me almost daily: ‘What’s the easiest kind of song to write?’

“‘A good song,’ I tell them. A bad song is the hardest to write because the song writer, in his efforts to turn a failure into success, never is finished with trying to write and rewrite it.”

In order that I might have writing facilities to take down the song composition “rules” Mr. Berlin was about to dictate to me, he led me back to a small working den, the chief furnishings of which were a wonderfully carved writing table and, directly opposite the table, a shabby upright piano that must have come into being about the same time young Mr. Berlin did.

The base of the humble “upright” rested upon pads of folded felt many inches thick. Also, no meticulous surgeon had ever bandaged a broken leg more thoroughly than Mr. Berlin had swathed the innards of the humble old piano with more yards of thick felt. Furthermore, he had dumped and packed many pounds of downy white feathers above and below the piano strings and sounding board. The pedals had been permanently locked with small wedges.

The explanation of all these elaborate anti-noise arrangements is characteristic of the youthful song writer.

“I don’t want to bother anyone who might be sick, or resting, or asleep, in the neighborhood,” was his simple explanation. “I’ve tried hard to do my own sleeping at normal hours, but found myself, night after night, climbing out of bed at all hours to hammer out a melody or write down a lyric that was keeping me awake.

“So now I begin my work shortly after dinner every night, and keep at it until four or five o’clock the next morning. The strings of this old bird are muffled so they make only a faint tinkle when the keys are struck. The creak is out of the pedals. Instead of using them, I tap my toe on a floor pad to keep in physical swing with the rhythm. With these precautions I can go to bed around daylight without feeling that I’ve invaded my neighbors’ rights.”

Having cleared up this matter, Mr. Berlin took up the nine rules which he not only preaches to others, but also practices himself.

“A song writer may break the rules of grammar, or versification, even of common sense and reason,” he said by way of brief preface, “and still turn out a song hit of the popular variety. He cannot ignore the rules of popular song construction and get away with his song. As in everything else, there have been song hits which were exceptions to some part of the code, but the rules must be followed in a general way or the song will certainly – not probably, but certainly – be a failure.

Here are the rules as Mr. Berlin thoughtfully dictated them to me:

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.

//box out//

The Story of a Song That Made a Fortune

My Wife’s Gone To The Country

“One night, in a barber shop, some years ago I ran into George Whitney, a vaudeville actor.” Says Mr. Berlin, “and asked him if he could go to a show with me. ‘Sure,’ he said; and he added with a laugh, ‘My wife’s gone to the country.’ Bing! There I had a commonplace, familiar title line. It was singable, capable of humorous upbuilding, simple, and one that did not serious offend against the ‘sexless’ role; for wives and their offspring of both sexes, as well as husbands, would be amused by singing it or hearing it sung.

“I persuaded Whitney to forget the theatre and to devote the night to developing the line with me into a song. Now, the usual and unsuccessful way of handling a line like that is to dash off a jumble of verses about the henpecked husband, all leading up to a chorus running, we’ll say, something like this:

“My wife’s gone to the country,
She went away last night,
Oh, I’m so glad! I’m so glad!
I’m crazy with delight!”

“Just wordy, obvious elaboration. No punch. All night I sweated to find what I knew was there, and finally I speared the line word, just a single word, that made the song – and a fortune. Listen:

“My wife’s gone to the country!
Hooray!–“

“‘Hooray!’ That lone word gave the whole idea of the song in one quick wollop. It gave the singer a chance to hoot with sheer joy. It invited the roomful to join in the hilarious shout. It everlastingly put the catch line over. And I wasn’t content until I had used my good thing to the limit. ‘She took the children with her – hooray! Hooray! – and so on.”

My Wife’s Gone To The Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)

Sheet music for the published version (pdf)

Words by Irving Berlin and Geo. Whiting, Music by Ted Snyder

[1st verse:]
When Missus Brown told hubby, “I just can’t stand the heat
Please send me to the country, dear, I know ‘twould be a treat”
Next day his wife and fam’ly were seated on a train
And when the train had started, Brownie shouted this refrain:

[1st chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need a rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
I don’t care what becomes of me, my wife’s gone away

[2nd verse:]
He kept the ‘phone a-going, told ev’ryone he knew
“It’s Mister Brown, come on downtown, I have some news for you”
He told a friend reporter just why he felt so gay
Next day an advertisement in the papers read this way:

[2nd chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need a rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
I don’t care what becomes of me, my wife’s gone away

[3rd verse:]
He sang his joyful story into a phonograph
He made a dozen records and I say it was to laugh
For when his friends had vanished and Brown was all alone
His neighbors heard the same old tune on Brownie’s graphophone

[3rd chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need the rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
Like Eva Tanguay, I don’t care, my wife’s gone away

[4th verse:]
He went into the parlor and tore down from the wall
A sign that read “God Bless Our Home” and threw it in the hall
Another sign he painted and hung it up instead
Next day the servant nearly fainted when these words she read:

[4th chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need the rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
Now I’m with you if you’re with me, my wife’s gone away

[5th verse:]
He called on pretty Molly, a girl he used to know
The servant said “She left the house about an hour ago
But if you leave your name, sir, or write a little note
I’ll give it to her when she comes” and this is what he wrote:

[5th chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need the rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
I love my wife, but oh! you kid, my wife’s gone away

[6th verse:]
He went and bought a parrot, a very clever bird
The kind that always would repeat most anything she heard
So when his voice grew husky and Brownie couldn’t talk
While he’d be taking cough-drops, he would have the parrot squawk:

[6th chorus:]
My wife’s gone to the country, hurrah, hurrah!
She thought it best, I need the rest, that’s why she went away
She took the children with her, hurrah, hurrah!
I knew my book, she left the cook, my wife’s gone away

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