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).

Optimal distinctiveness and the songwriting singer #arp

Davey will be discussing songwriter identity in the context of optimal distinctiveness theory, and uses this to frame some popular music within the known teen phenomenon of ‘I loved [that band] before they were famous’. He uses the famous example of iMacs that looked like furniture – the novel and the familiar are balanced to create consumer need.

Popular music is perceived to come out of ‘scenes’ – genres, fashions and subcultures – and necessarily has different audiences, who in turn require identity, categorisation and distinctiveness (Zuckerman 2014).

In Davey’s auto-ethnographical research, he has created 4 albums over 8 years; 2 of these gained traction; 2 faded away. He analyses each project according to its distinctiveness, genre, novelty, conformity etc (via the above ODT framework).

We now hear ‘Memory is a Weapon’ (CousteauX, 2017), from Davey’s reboot of his turn-of-the-century band Cousteau. The journalistic feedback and reviews triangulate the product’s perceived distinctiveness. Assimilation (conformity to expectation) is contrasted with Differentiation (challenge to expectation) – for example, the torch singer persona of Cousteau’s work becoming the rogue-ish character of the CousteuX reboot. This is in the lyric mode of address (first person, reflective, confessional). Most of the rest of the album is in the dramatic mode of address (quasi-second person – addressing the audience as if they were present or speaking to somebody else positioning the audience as witness).

The journalistic responses agreed with the intent, reliably highlighting words such as ‘dark’ and ‘brooding’ etc.

Sample replays… #arp #sampling

Sample replays and their implications for producers and listeners

Justin Morey, Leeds Beckett University

ABSTRACT: There is evidence that the cost of clearing the recording copyright of a sample (the master clearance) has risen significantly in the last 20 years (see, for example: McLeod and Di Cola, 2013; Morey, 2014), with one result being the increasing use of sample replay services, which create a sound-alike of a sample at a fraction of the price of clearing the original. A further recent development is that producers (hereafter sampling composers) whose records originally used cleared samples have found that on expiry of the term of clearance, record label demands to authorize an extension have become financially prohibitive, leading to a choice either to create a version with the sample replaced by a replay, or have the record disappear completely from streaming services and broadcast media.

Using qualitative data from practitioners involved in sampling, sample replay services, and sample clearance, this paper explores the implications of developments in the industrial management of copyright on the creative practice of sampling composers and the canon of sample-based music available to listeners, and considers issues of the aura and authenticity of an original recording in terms of sampling and sample replays.

Keywords: digital sampling; copyright; creative practice

Service Models in Popular Music Production Education #arp #songwriting

Collective Creativity: A ‘Service’ Model of Contemporary Commercial Pop Music

  • Paul Thompson, Leeds Beckett University, UK
  • Phil Harding, Leeds Beckett University, UK

Keywords: Creativity, Pop Production, Songwriting

Thewantedifoundyou.jpgABSTRACT: A commercial pop music production is rarely the result of a single individual and pop music producers and songwriters are often part of a larger creative collective (Hennion, 1990) in creating a musical product. A team leader typically manages this group activity. That team leader requires an appropriate level of cultural, symbolic and economic capital (Bourdieu, 1984) so they can effectively evaluate the contributions of the rest of the team and guide the project towards commercial success (Thompson & Harding, 2017). This study explores the role of the team leader within the creative production workflow of pop songwriting and production since the 1990s and investigates the ways in which pop songwriting and production teams work within a creative system of pop-music making. Building upon previous studies in this area (Harding and Thompson 2017) the ‘Service Model’ flow system is illustrated with distinct linear stages that include the processes of pop songwriting, pop vocal recording, post vocal production and then mixing. However, within each of these production stages the ‘highly nonlinear dynamics’ (Capra and Luisi, 2014) of the creative system (Csikszentmihalyi; 1988, 1999) can be viewed in action as the team work together to make the pop record. Drawing upon a series of interviews and data gathered during a Practice Based Enquiry (PBE) conducted at Westerdals University in Oslo, this paper presents the pop music ‘Service Model’. Importantly, the model underlines the value of the collective (rather than individual) in the commercial pop songwriting and production process.

This is Phil and Paul’s third presentation about this project (related to Phil’s PhD) – and represents bringing the research up to date by talking about contemporary pop production. For background, you can read about last year’s paper and/or pick up Phil’s book PWL from the Factory Floor.