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Applying The 80/20 Rule To Your Songwriting

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Discover How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Your Songwriting
What stops most songwriters from finishing songs isn't a lack of good ideas but a misdirection of songwriting focus.

Based on the comments I receive, musicians are spending more time on tasks that do little to move the song closer to completion.

For example, if you just spent 15 minutes on the kick drum sound but don't have a single completed verse, you're not really writing a song at all. If you just spent half an hour practicing a guitar riff when your chorus needs a melody, you're another 30 minutes away from actually doing any real songwriting.

The 80/20 Rule

An Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, observed that 80% of the income in Italy (and every country he subsequently studied) was received by 20% of the population. Over the years, many noticed that the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, could be applied to just about everything: 80% of the world's money is in the hands of 20% of the people, 80% of the nurturing support and satisfaction you receive comes from about 20% of the people you know, 80% of your success comes from 20% of the things you do.

As a musician, you're self-employed. You don't get paid for every hour you work. You are paid on outcomes.

The 80/20 rule applies to you, your money, and your songwriting. By applying more of your time to the 20% of musical activities that really makes a difference, you have the potential to double your income and double your time off.

If you can double your value, then you can double your income.

How? By identifying the things you do that contribute the greatest value to yourself and your songwriting.

So What's Important?

A perfect hint to what should be important to you as a songwriter lies in copyright law. When it comes to a song, what's essentially protected is the lyrics and the melody. That riff you just wrote is pretty cool, but it's not in the top 20%. That snare drum you just mixed is slammin', but is it really a priority? It might be if you're an engineer. But not if you're a songwriter. And definitely not if you're mixing a snare that doesn't yet have a song!

If you just apply the 80/20 Rule to your songwriting, you can resolve to spend more of your time doing more of the things that contribute the greatest value to you.

Write more lyrics and melodies. Even the chord progression isn't the most important thing you should be focusing on. Of course it helps to write melodies to a chord progression, so spend only 5 minutes writing one or better yet, go borrow one like every other great songwriter has. Then spend an hour writing a melody and an hour writing lyrics.

For every 5 minutes you spend on the sound of your demo, spend 5 times that on the lyrics and melody.

Chord progressions can be reharmonized. The production can be remixed. The drums can be programmed by 10 different great programmers and the guitar riff can have 10 different iterations.

But what's going to get you closer to finishing a song isn't the snare or guitar, it's the lyrics and the melody.

I get a lot of demos from people with stellar production and so-so songs. But once in a while I get a demo that doesn't sound like it was recorded within 30 light years of the Record Plant but the song still stands on its own two feet. That's the great songwriter.

You can even use the 80/20 rule to figure out what songs you should be working on.

If you're like most songwriters, you're working on more than one song at a time...

  • Pick two out of the 10 songs you have that are the best and finish them.
  • Pick two out of the 10 that have been sitting on your list for over 6 months, finish writing them, and get them off your list.
  • Pick two out of 10 that have no chance of being made into anything memorable and ditch them.

Or just start fresh with the Speed Songwriting System and write a song in an hour.

The 80/20 rule is fractal. You can apply it to your entire song catalog and you can apply it to a single song. You can apply it to what you should be doing and what you shouldn't be doing.

The point is this...

If you're having trouble finishing songs, then maybe it's time to take a good look at where you spend most of your time and make some adjustments.

After all, you would like double the quantity AND the quality of your songs, wouldn't you?

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17 Responses to Applying The 80/20 Rule To Your Songwriting

  1. dave July 31, 2014 at 11:44 PM #

    i could reestablish my music time priority. I write songs and finish them. that isn't a problem. The problem is that i play them several hundred times until I know them good enough to perform them in public. In fact, I over kill how much I play them. Sometimes, I will play my songs for an hour and a half and not work on new lyrics or music at all.
    Other times I will plays songs that friends have written....the original music of my band...sometimes I will mindless play classic rock/americana music, e.g. house of the risen sun or turn the page...or anything I can remember...
    I need to write more songs.

    • Graham English August 1, 2014 at 7:46 AM #

      Kudos to your self-awareness. Go write more songs! 🙂

    • [email protected] February 22, 2016 at 1:37 PM #

      The part about listing an hour and a half sounds like me lol funny, I so feel you!

  2. Keith January 20, 2015 at 4:26 PM #

    I read the entire article and I think it's right to the point. My songwriting partner spends a lot of his time learning to sing better and play his instruments better. He also happens to write lyrics to the song melodies I give him. He says he works hard at putting lyrics to my melodies and I believe him. I also think he also writes good lyrics. But the process he uses takes 30 days or longer to finish up the lyrics to one song. I believe in his case, his time is mostly devoted to performance and we could benifit as song writers if he shifted his focus more to writing lrics.

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:38 AM #

      Thanks! Send your co-writer on over, Keith. I think everyone can benefit from learning how to use the 80/20 rule.

  3. Dori Seider March 3, 2015 at 2:22 PM #

    I am now using the 80/20 rule and having fast success. Thanks, Graham!

  4. Big Bobby April 12, 2015 at 11:46 AM #

    I used your theory of songwriting and bro I kicked out a good disco mistake!!! I was messing around had the urge to do something "out of the box"...used your method of songwriting tips and BAM!!! Believe it or not, its a nice song. Thanks bro...we'll be together for a mighty long time. Please go check it out..."Bobby Bringin Disco Back"

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:28 AM #

      Just Googled it and checked it out. BAM!!! I dig the funky disco soul! 🙂

  5. Gerry Wass April 20, 2015 at 12:23 PM #

    Something clicked after reading this article, Graham, and a whole cascade of songwriting torment flowed through me. I sat down last night and gave serious time to my long list of prospective song titles, then forced myself to pick one. With the concept in mind of having an appropriate drawer to eventually put it in, I got a long way into the song and enjoyed it a lot. It's not a yet a grand accomplishment but it meant enough to me to want to thank you for the restart inspiration.

    • Graham English June 9, 2015 at 7:23 AM #

      Thank you! If you're enjoying yourself, that's the main thing! 🙂

  6. Ellen Allard July 20, 2015 at 5:23 PM #

    Thanks Graham. I needed a little push. I have a file folder FULL of songs I've started. It's time to get serious and not just write when the spirit moves me. It's time to create and commit to a practice - a songwriting practice!

  7. Chapin Songwriter December 24, 2015 at 11:22 AM #

    Extremely useful. I'm going to work on my song's more with pass. Thanks Graham English. May God bless you.

  8. normcore January 28, 2016 at 10:36 PM #

    I love your articles, Graham!

  9. [email protected] June 4, 2016 at 1:53 PM #

    I'm enjoying and learning so much havingbyou as my writing coach, thanks Coach Graham.

    • Graham English June 6, 2016 at 2:55 PM #

      Thanks for the feedback! It means a lot to me! 🙂

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