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: 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.

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).

The Art of Listening To Songs #apme2018

Randy Klein, songwriter and SongU coach.

Randy introduces himself and talks briefly about his work in music education, including his publications, talks, and his experience of listening to other songwriters’ work over many years. Today he’s sharing with us the structure of his 16-week songwriting course, and he begins with the philosophy of definition i.e. the question ‘what is a song?’. He suggests that most technical descriptions of a song fall short of the mark of describing its subjective effects on listeners, noting how difficult this intangible would be to achieve. He provides a traditional melody-lyric-harmony definition of a song (i.e. omitting the Sound Recording or arrangement), and then asks the potential student question “If [a song is too intangible to hold], then how can I learn about it?”.

To the great amusement of the audience, Randy now talks us (literally, talks us) through the whole of the lyric to James Brown’s ‘I Got You’, demonstrating that it’s clearly a love song. He now separates the [love] song from the arrangement, describing the horn lick and Brown’s vocal as ‘ear candy’, building on the core lyric’s emotional intent.

Eurovision 2018 preview – top 10

It’s Eurovision eve!

[For any Americans who are unfamiliar with the ESC, here’s the background]

Image result for eurovision 2018 logoBack in 2010 I live-tweeted some song commentary as the show was going out. Since 2011 I’ve been live-blogging the show, with real-time music analysis and commentary, and attempting to predict the winners before the voting begins.

Since 2015 I’ve been in the USA, and for the last two years have had to pre-blog due to work commitments and the time difference, but this year I’m pleased to say true live-blogging is back and I’ll be sitting down at 3pm ET/8pm UK time to be live-blogging. So please go to http://www.joebennett.net at those times and refresh your browser after each song. I’ll be chord-analysing, BPM detecting and quality-scoring each song as we go.

Here’s a preview of the top 10 watched YouTube Eurovision song videos in April. I note that an early favourite was Belgium, who didn’t make it through the semi-finals.

 

Did Lana Del Rey copy Radiohead?

radiohead-pablohoney-albumartThis week, Lana Del Rey stated that she is being sued for copying Radiohead’s 1992 song Creep in her 2017 release, Get Free.

First, some facts…

  • Both songs use the same chord sequence: | I | I |  | III | III |  | IV | IV | iv |  iv |
    • Creep is in G major, so | G | G | B | B | C  | C | Cm | Cm |
    • Get Free is in Bb major, so | Bb | Bb | D | D | Eb | Eb | Ebm | Ebm |
  • They are both mid-tempo (Creep is around 92 BPM; Get Free is around 102BPM).
  • They both have a similar rhythmic feel – straight 8s 4/4 time, in 8-bar sections (this is a similarity but an unremarkable one, given that it applies to a huge number of songs).

…and some history…

  • Creep is part-borrowed from Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe (1972) – later a hit for The Hollies. According to The Guardian, Radiohead gave Hammond and his co-writer Mike Hazlewood a credit in the Pablo Honey album liner notes.

Here are the three songs in reverse order of release: