How To Use the Rule of Two in Songwriting

The Rule of Two is something writers often do subconsciously. The concept of repeating something only twice before changing something helps the listener engage with the music. It prevents the feeling of a section dragging on (as pop songwriters and critics like to say, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!”). There are many instances of songwriters ignoring or breaking these rules, but it is so prevalent in most music that it is worth thinking about. 

Melody is one of the trickier ways to use the Rule of Two, if only to define what constitutes as one line. There are usually a few ways songwriters will vary their melodies after two lines:

Sing one melody, repeat that melody, then move on to another melody.

Let’s look at “Someone You Loved” by Lewis Capaldi:

I’m going under and this time I fear there’s no one to save me
This all or nothing really got a way of driving me crazy

These two lines have the same melody. You can tell they are two lines because each of them are the same length (four bars). After the melody is repeated twice, he goes on to sing his Pre-Chorus, which has a new melody:

I need somebody to heal
Somebody to know
Somebody to have
Somebody to hold

It’s easy to say
But it’s never the same
I guess I kinda liked the way you numbed all the pain

The first section (“I need somebody to heal” to “Somebody to hold”) is all one line because it is also four bars, even though it sounds like four separate lines. This holds true because he repeats that same melody in the next four bars almost exactly the same way (“It’s easy to say” to “Numbed all the pain”). Therefore, he has repeated the melody twice and moves onto the Chorus.

Sing one melody for an entire section and then repeat that section.

“Afterglow” by Ed Sheeran:

Stop the clocks, it’s amazing
You should see the way the light dances off your hair
A million colours of hazel, golden and red

Saturday morning is fading
The sun’s reflected by the coffee in your hand
My eyes are caught in your gaze all over again

I previously talked about how this song kept us hooked with the uneven number of lines, but he also uses the Rule of Two to do so. The first stanza of his Verse is all one melody, and although it is longer—almost an entire section—we still get that sense of repetition of that melody in the next stanza of the Verse. He moves onto his chorus melody next, following the Rule of Two.

This is really a variation of repeating a melody twice followed by an entirely different melody. It still works in this case where the melody (before it is repeated) is longer than just one line. 

For another example of this, listen to the Verses in “Where We Go” by P!nk.

Got a hole in my head and my heart tonight
Well you shot me down, you just ain’t right
Comes a time when you know you must let go
I know, I know
We fixed it, but it’s broken

Got a feeling we gonna get this wrong
And even I can’t be this strong
It’s a breath that you take you right before you die
We lie and lie

Can’t say we didn’t try, though

In this song, the first two lines feel very similar (though if you check the notes, they are not). This is common, but after listening to the first stanza fully, we get a sense that nothing has really been repeated. This is why she repeats an entire stanza with the same melody twice—it feels incomplete. After the repetition, she completes the Rule of Two and moves on to the Chorus.

Sing one melody, repeat that melody, sing a new melody in the third line, repeat the first line’s melody for the fourth line.

This option is common in Verses with four lines. Let’s look at “willow” by Taylor Swift:

I’m like the water when your ship rolled in that night
Rough on the surface but you cut through like a knife
And if it was an open/shut case
I never would’ve known from that look on your face
Lost in your current like a priceless wine

This verse looks like it is five lines, doesn’t it? If you listen closely, you will notice each line is actually four bars. Following that, the third and fourth lines in this Verse are actually one line in itself (this is why the Rule of Two in melody can be tricky!). The stanza looks like this when you consider only the melody line length:

I’m like the water when your ship rolled in that night
Rough on the surface but you cut through like a knife
And if it was an open/shut case, I never would’ve known from that look on your face
Lost in your current like a priceless wine

Now we can properly see how the melody repeats. The first two lines are exactly the same and the melody changes for the third line. The last line is almost exactly the same as the first two lines. This adheres to the Rule of Two, even if she goes back to that same melody, because she has changed it for the third line.

How songwriters break the Rule of Two with the Rule of Three

Ryn Nicole describes an interesting way that songwriters break the Rule of Two. Instead of only repeating the melody twice, a song might repeat the melody three times before changing to a different melody. Ryn calls this the Rule of Three. 

Listen to the Chorus of “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus:

I came in like a wrecking ball
I never hit so hard in love
All I wanted was to break your walls
All you ever did was wreck me
Yeah, you, you wreck me

The melody of the first line is repeated again in the second line, and then again in the third line. The advantage of writing a melody this way is that it sets up an expectation that the melody will be repeated again for the fourth line. Listeners won’t tire of the third line but most likely will find the fourth repetition of the melody jarring. The Rule of Three ensures that the listener stays hooked; they will be surprised when their expectation of a repeating fourth line isn’t met, and keep listening.

Now, study some songs…

Keep listening to songs and checking if musicians are using the Rule of Two or Three in their songs, because they probably are! Next time you’re writing and you’re a little bored of your melody, try this out. Maybe even create your own crazy form with seven lines but follow the Rule of Two—it will probably have great results.



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