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Songwriting Using the 80/20 Rule (the Pareto Principle)

How to improve your songwriting using the Pareto Principle (the 80/20 Rule)... What is it? How it works for songwriting & how to get more of that magic 20%!
Pareto Songwriting, Using the 80-20 Rule with songwriting

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The Pareto Principle, when simplified, states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the work.

So According to the Pareto Principle:

In 20% of your songwriting time you’ll write 80% of your song. 

20% of your songs will account for 80% of your Spotify and YouTube plays.

20% of your songs will generate 80% of your royalties and income. 

So there are 3 important questions to answer:

What’s the Pareto Principle?

Does the Pareto Principle work for songwriting?

How can you get more of that magic 20%?

In This Article You’ll Learn:

  • What the Pareto Principle really is, and how many people get it wrong.
  • Why the Pareto Principle is popularly called the 80/20 Rule and why that name is inaccurate.
  • A brief history of the Pareto Principle and how an economic theory became a fundamental principle behind: historical studies, industry, computer systems, computer programming, personal relationships, personal productivity, personal growth and now songwriting too!
  • Why the math behind the Pareto Principle is sometimes misleading.
  • Why the Pareto Principle works… the principles behind the Principle.
  • Pareto Mistakes, the top 3 ways the Pareto Principle is misused or misunderstood.
  • How the Pareto Principle explains strange aspects of the music industry and how it affects songwriters.
  • How you can use the Pareto Principle in your songwriting sessions.

Understanding the Pareto Principle will improve your songwriting results and help you write more in less time.

What’s the 80/20 Rule?

The 80/20 Rule is the popular name for the Pareto Principle: most of the good stuff happens from a few really important activities… the majority of positive results come from a select few key efforts. The pattern tends to be  80% of the benefits are a result of 20% of your time and effort. 

So: 20% of your most productive input is worth 80% of your output. 

Or in songwriting terms: 

20% of your songwriting time you’ll write 80% of your song. 

20% of your songs will get 80% of your plays on Spotify, or generate 80% of your royalties and income. 

Pareto’s Principle is important for two big reasons:

1. It’s counter-intuitive, it goes against the common belief that hard work always pays off. It’s similar to “following your dreams” without creating a realistic plan to get there… or “Believe in yourself” without doing the hard work to back up those beliefs… it’s only half of the story. Instead, learn to work smart, then hard. 

2. If 20% of your effort gets you 80% of your results… then the other 80% of your efforts only lead to 20% of your results. Most of the things you do and spend time on aren’t as important as you think. 

Now before you start fretting over the math (which is where most people get the Pareto Principle wrong because they’re using an oversimplified understanding of some deep concepts) let’s get a better understanding of the historical foundations of the Pareto Principle…

we have a plan right? two bordercollies sitting in the front seats of a car, songwriting meme

Brief History of the 80/20 Rule

Pareto’s Principle, commonly known as the “80/20 Rule,” was first discovered by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923, born Fritz Wilfried Pareto). He began his career in civil engineering (planning and building infrastructure like roads, bridges, etc). He later lectured on economics and management at the University of Florence and became the chair of Political Economy at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. (source)

Around 1897, Pareto noticed a pattern in the distribution of wealth… who was rich or poor. He used math to plot a curve between % of people and the % of wealth in a country. That is: 20% of people owned 80% of everything during 19C England. He found the same pattern in economic data he had from other European countries. 

One lovely (and false) story is that Pareto first noticed his Principle when he was gathering peas in his garden… supposedly he noticed that 20% of his pea plants produced 80% of the peas. It’s a great story and that’s why it’s still floating around on the internet. Another false story is Pareto first noticed his Principle with Italian land ownership.

The Pareto Principle didn’t catch on right away, but it did inspire George Kingsley Zift, (1902-1950) professor of philology (the study of language and history) at Harvard University (source). He discovered the Principle of Least Effect, a variation of Pareto’s Principle, that he noticed that 20-30 percent of effort (or resources) resulted in 70-80 percent of the results. Simply stated, 20 percent of your efforts give you 80 percent of your results. (Richard Koch, The 80-20 Principle to Achieve More with Less Effort, p7)

Joseph Moses Juran (1904-2008), a Romanian-American electrical engineer who applied Pareto’s Principle to industry, calling it the Rule of the Vital Few (the vital few and the useful many). He specialized in streamlining factory production and improving  the quality of finished products. He wrote “Quality Control Handbook” in 1951. When he couldn’t get widespread acceptance of his work in the United States, he worked as a consultant in Japan and helped Japanese industry rebuild after World War 2. He later returned to the United States and helped improve industrial production there in the late 1970s. (Koch, p8 and source

Pareto, Zift and Juran used the pattern described in Pareto’s Principle and applied it to economics, historical studies, industry, computer systems and computer programming using scientific method, scientific measurement and mathematical formulae.

The Pareto Principle has been generalized (and math and measurement removed) as:

Most of your benefits come from a few important activities

and applied to relationships, personal productivity, personal growth. 

Other Names for Pareto’s Principle

Pareto’s Principle is most commonly called the 80/20 Rule or variations such as the 80:20 Rule the 80-20 Law or the 80/20 Principle. It’s also referred to as: the Rule of the Vital Few, the Principle of Least Effort and the Principle of Imbalance (Koch, p8). 

80/20 Math

The 80/20 Rule is an oversimplification of a complex mathematical formula. Instead of digging into the math, here are some specific points along the curve that was first described by Vilfredo Pareto:

20% of the population controlled (owned) 80% of the wealth.

10% owned 65%

5% owned 50%

Click to view a Pareto Diagram

The Pareto Distribution (originally the approximate percentages of owners to percentage of wealth, but later expanded to also include the amount of effort compared to results)…

So 20% of your efforts will lead to about 80% of the results. 10% gets you about 65%, 5% yields 50%. 

The two numbers measure two different things relative to each other, there isn’t a need or expectation that the two numbers add up to 100.

Pareto, Zipf and Juran used precise measurements to describe and predict data and events in their fields of study. Precise measurement is difficult when it comes to personal productivity, songwriting or many of the other areas where the Pareto Principle is applied. What’s 20% “more productive”? What’s 20% of a song?

Exact numbers are helpful but not necessarily important when the Pareto Principle is at work.

Articles, including this one, that reference the Pareto Principle assume it works by analogy. Supporting this analogy is the reason for the information and history included at the beginning of this article.

Don't Twist Yourself Up, guitar tuning peg

The Principles Behind Pareto’s Principle

Let’s examine some of the principles behind the Pareto Principle so you can use them to improve your songwriting results.

Effort Doesn’t Equal Results

Working hard is pointless if you’re working on the wrong things. Some efforts are more productive than others. 

Spending time writing songs and improving your songwriting skills is more productive than cruising FaceBook looking for new friends to listen to your songs.

If you’re a strong lyricist it makes more sense to develop your lyric writing skills than to spend time learning to play an instrument, learn music theory and how to arrange music. If you want to learn how to write and arrange music I’ll help you out but it’s faster to find a co-writer. 

If you’re a well rounded guitarist/songwriter with no experience writing for saxophones and trumpets, it’s a more efficient use of your time finding an accomplished arranger to write the charts for a horn section than spending time learning how to do it yourself. There’s inside knowledge that you can only learn by playing those instruments, analyzing how others successfully write for them and practicing writing for those instruments. You can get some of it from books but actively doing it is the best way to learn it.  

Working Hard Doesn’t Always Work

Work Smart, not hard! Hard work is rewarded is an unwritten rule, but it’s wrong!

You could spend years trying to learn songwriting all on your own, or you could spend some money and get songwriting lessons or buy a songwriting course. I’d rather get double the results in half the time… which would you pick?

Click here enter your email address and to learn How to Write a Song Chorus

Hard work is glorified in our culture. Some think a sixty hour work week is the only way to “make it”, but sometimes hard work isn’t the most effective approach, sometimes it’s just hard! 

Cumulative Growth

The Pareto Principle gets interesting when you factor in time. Small changes become greater over time. 

A simple math example is compound interest. An interest rate of 2% on $1000 doubles your money in 36 years. A single percent more, 3% doubles your money in 24 years. At 10% your money is doubled in 7.2 years.

A simplified example for your songs might be: your most popular track is shared by 3% of the people who listen to it while your second best track is shared by 2% (both numbers are  respectable by the way) your best track will quickly start to outperform your second best track but the results will be even more dramatic after a year of steady shares and listens.

Some of your songs are stronger than others and will be listened to and shared faster than others especially when you look at the results over longer periods of time.

Other Principles Behind Pareto’s Principle

Richard Koch explains several other underlying principles behind the Pareto Principle in his book The 80/20 Principle (pp 13-17)

Music doesn't happen by accident, dandelion seeds, songwriting meme, songwriting tips that actually work, songwriting advice

80/20 Mistakes

Pareto Mistakes, Pareto’s Principle is often misunderstood, misused or generally screwed up. 

Here are 3 common mistakes:

1. Over Simplifying the Pareto Principle 

This happens in a variety of ways, including:

  • Only Looking for 80 & 20 – Pareto described a distribution along a curve, 20 & 80 is only one point on the curve.
  • Believing Pareto’s Principle is a Law of Nature – it’s a principle, not a natural law.
  • Expecting Statistics To Be Exact – statistics are about probability, not certainty
  • Using a Small Sample – statistics show probability, but the accuracy is low with a small sample of data.
  • Thinking in a Straight Line – linear thinking doesn’t work with Pareto’s Principle, some actions are more important than others, Pareto’s Principle use a curve, not a straight line.
  • Using Math Without Measurement – if you aren’t measuring it, it won’t be accurate… however, the general principles allow you to generalize safely as long as you remember it’s only a generalization!

2. Only Doing 80% of the Work 

So if I can get 80% done in 20% of my time, I only have to do 80% of everything, right?

No, 80% of a song isn’t a song… it’s still sitting in your songwriting notebook while the pages slowly turn yellow.

You still have to finish things or they’re incomplete. While it’s painfully obvious, a shocking number of internet articles only tell a small part of the story. Put more focus on the most important things and follow up to finish.

3. Trying To Use Pareto For Everything

Paerto’s principle doesn’t apply to everything… review the Principles behind Pareto’s Principle and use your best judgement!

Trevor Dimoff, songwriter, songwriting teacher, epicsongwriting, learn to write songs, how to write a song

Pareto’s Principle And Songs

Here are some musical examples of Pareto’s Principle in the music industry…

An Album Only Needed 2 Hits

Back in the old days, when albums and CDs were the standard release, the strongest couple of songs were released as singles to create anticipation for the album. Generally the better the singles did on the charts the better the album sales. Two hit singles meant the album would be a financial success. 

There were several albums that I bought over the years that were disappointments for me, even though I liked the singles… the rest of the songs weren’t as good. It turns out that statistically (according to Pareto’s Principle) 2 songs of 10 is to be expected!

Not Every Song Goes Viral

Just as some songs will account for more than their fair share of income or popularity, some songs will comparatively underperform. So every song can’t be a hit, some will miss. Some songs are better than others regardless of how you measure “better.”

As a songwriter or a band, when you’re getting ready to record, choose the songs you’ll record from a selection of more songs than you need. If you want to record a 5 song EP have a dozen or more to choose from, so you’re cutting only the best of your best songs. 

This might seem extreme, but when songwriter Ian Sherwood was getting ready to record an album he took 3 weeks off from everything to write another 6 songs (4 made it to the album), even though he already had 40 songs ready to cut. 

Read why Ian Sherwood took 3 weeks off to write more songs when he already had more songs than he needed for his album…

Songs Aren’t Created Equally

Some songs aren’t as strong as others, that’s just life. So instead of sitting proud on your first three songs, get back to work and write some more. The larger your song catalogue the greater the chance that one or more of your songs will be superior!

Play The Odds

If some songs will outperform others, if some songs can be hits or go viral but others won’t… write a lot of songs! 

You can’t write your first 10 songs and then retire. Songwriting is a long game, a marathon not a sprint. The more you write the better your odds that you’ll write something that really resonates with your audience.

As you write more, you’ll also (if you’re intentionally and deliberately working to improve your songwriting) write stronger songs that appeal to your audience. Compound growth again….

Making Pareto’s Principle Work For Your Songwriting 

What’s Your 20%?

  • What are your goals for your songwriting?
  • What are the most important things/tasks you do that push you towards those goals?
  • What tasks or parts of the songwriting process are you best at?

Put more time, effort and attention on these things and avoid getting overloaded or distracted by the other 80%!

What’s Your 80%?

  • Where do you spend time and effort without noticeable or with minimal results?
  • What could you do less of without it affecting your goals?
  • What distractions are a waste of your time and talent?

Spend less time here… don’t worry about these things, find help or pay for help with these tasks!

Write It Down And Follow Through

Don’t just read this… write it down so you follow through and change your behaviours and improve your results!

  • What’s your 20%? What and when are you most productive and useful?
  • What’s your 80%? What and where do you spend time and effort but get small results?
  • What can I do to spend more time on the important things and change my behaviour?
Don't Write Randomly - start with the big wins, Dice

Using Pareto’s Principle To Write Your Songs

Now that you understand Pareto’s Principle, why it works and how it actually works, let’s examine how you can use it to your advantage when you’re songwriting!

Brainstorming

Embrace the fact that statistically only some of your ideas will be the best ideas you can come up with, or 20% of your ideas will be much better than the rest. Understand it’s okay to have bad ideas or ideas that won’t fit in the song you’re writing at the moment.

Brainstorming quickly write down ideas without judging them. It takes some effort to retrain your brain but Brainstorming is one of my go-to writing exercises.

Write Songs With Your 20% Best Ideas and Titles

Instead of spending the time to write an entire song, explore several song titles or ideas.

Choose several possible song titles and spend a few minutes on each, writing a simple plot or song outline.

Then choose the most interesting title idea to write the complete song.

Write complete songs with only your best ideas. Don’t feel you have to write every possible song idea you can think of, just write the best ideas!

80% Of A Song Is Written In The First 20% Of Your Songwriting Time

Writing a song is a series of decisions, each choice excludes other possibilities that won’t fit. For example, an uptempo song isn’t a ballad, a love song probably won’t involve politics, if you’re writing about an amazing love story most of your choices 

When you outline a song and choose your song topic or title, the underlying theme, the style and the first lyric ideas you’ve already made the majority of decisions for your song. There’s still much to do and decide but in a few minutes you can “write” most of a song.

The First 20% Of A Song is the Most Fun to Write 

It’s more fun to start a song, exploring the first choices, but as you write, each decision makes smaller gains until it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere. Finishing the final details of a song can feel tedious and slow. The devil’s in the details….

So you start writing a new song to avoid finishing it….

Know Your Songwriting Work Habits

Write when you feel most productive. Most people do their best work when they’re fresh, especially at the start of the day. 

If you’re a night owl and do excellent work after dark, block off time to write when it’s late. 

Take control of your schedule, block off songwriting time instead of moaning about how you ”don’t have the time”… work when you’re fresh and rested instead of when you can “fit it in.” Make it a priority instead of an accident. 

Learn how to consistently work on your songs with Daily Songwriting

Know When To Take A Break

Spend as much time working when you’re at your best. Conventional wisdom is to take a 5-10 minute break every hour. I’ll often set a 10 minute timer when I take a break to get myself back to work. It takes practice to stay sharp for extended sessions… don’t fool yourself, it’s easy to lose focus without realizing it. Taking a quick break is more efficient than trying to write when you’re tired or distractable. 

Deadlines Help

How often do you submit your taxes before they’re due? 

Deadlines are wonderful for prompting sudden results. Ever procrastinate until the day before a deadline when your excuses stop working and you finally force yourself to sit yourself down and get it finished? 

Set yourself slightly uncomfortable deadlines. If the deadline is too easy, you’ll likely find a way to waste time. If it’s too ambitious you won’t make the deadline and have to fight that “I failed” feeling. When it’s slightly uncomfortable you’ll stretch yourself and hit it!

Big Deadlines

Finish the song by a specific date or be ready for the recording studio on a specific date.

Little Deadlines

Set a deadline that’s minutes away. Work with a countdown timer (My favourite approach is setting a 5-15 minute deadline and only work in one task until the timer runs out, example brainstorm title ideas for 10 minutes, brainstorm chorus lyrics for 5 minutes…)

The Other 80% of Your Songwriting Efforts

You still have other tasks you need to accomplish, even if they aren’t in your strongest 20%. You need to spend time on these tasks, but don’t devote more time than you need to complete them. Get them done then return to the tasks that give you better returns on the time you’re investing. 

Sure most of the big decisions about your song are made in the first 20% of the writing time, but you still have to work out all the little details to finish the song. The trick is to act decisively to complete it then move on to the next song. 

The other trick is to streamline your less “profitable” activities. For example, as a songwriter, you need to have a  social media presence to help your audience find and get to know you as a person and as an artist. Even if you don’t like spending time on FaceBook or Twitter or Instagram or YouTube it would be wise to choose one and spend some time there but don’t devote an hour to each every day (go write some songs instead!).

You can also:

Get Support

You can’t do everything yourself so get help, it’s not cheating it’s just working smart! Sometimes this requires money, you’re investing in yourself and your career so don’t cry poor or choose the cheapest way out… you get what you pay for!

Pay for lessons to improve your vocal or instrumental skills. Pay for studio time instead of trying to record yourself and expecting a professional recording. 

If money’s tight and you know the right people trade work for work or get volunteers to help you.

For example: if you have a band member that lives for social media, get them posting for the band instead of taking it on entirely yourself or thinking about hiring a social media company.

If you know someone who can do X, and needs Y that you can provide… create a deal that works out for both of you. Always structure a deal so they get slightly more than they give you in exchange, a big imbalance either way becomes awkward.

Work With A Co-Writer

Cooperating with other songwriters helps you both write songs that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Co-writing is often faster than writing on your own when there’s an effective synergy between writers. It provides a sounding board for ideas, so you can quickly filter out weaker ideas. A co-writer with complementary skills also lets you lean on them when they have strengths that differ from yours. For example, if you’re a strong instrumentalist, finding a writing partner that has a way with words is faster than devoting time to developing your own lyric writing talents.

Finding a co-writing partner can be as difficult as finding a spouse. It’s okay to date around and try writing with other people, it’s not exclusive. You need to find someone with similar musical taste, complementary songwriting skills and someone that’s available to work with you.

A few other thoughts:

  • Don’t bad mouth other people or gossip.
  • Be courteous, professional and arrive on time with ideas ready to go.
  • Most importantly, be fun to write with!

Build Relationships in the Music Industry 

People like to help others but they don’t like to be taken advantage of. Don’t waste someone’s time, especially by acting unprofessionally (acting like an amateur) or asking for too much (especially if you just met). 

Think of any professional interaction/situation as if it was a romantic one. (I’m serious)

Would you ask someone to marry you on the first date?

That’s like asking an executive at a record label for a job as a songwriter when you first meet them (both are long term relationships)… you might get somewhere if you take it slower and let them first hear one of your songs and then let them ask to hear another of your songs before you start talking about “going steady”

Offer help instead of asking for help… people are more responsive when there is something in it for them!

Outsource

Hire people to help you get more done. You get to concentrate on what you do best, and you can hire people to do what they do best.

Sure it can be expensive to pay for professional services, but when you can do them poorly (or have to learn how) and you can get professional help for a price you can afford… stop acting cheap if you’re serious about your career.

For example: I purchased a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and two microphones and started a home studio. It took more than a year before I could record myself without cringing at the final mix. 

Then I took some voice lessons because my singing voice was the weakest link in my music production.

Now, I can play, sing and record really well, but for a professional release I’d still be shopping for the best studio, engineer and musicians I can afford.

I learned how to do all these things because I wanted to learn how to do them, not because I expected to learn how to do them well enough to create a professional recording in my home studio. 

You can read how to do this yourself (faster than I did it, because you’ve got me explaining how…) in 

The Singer Songwriter’s Ultimate Guide to Home Recording. 

The first article explains all the gear you do and don’t need to get started…

Doing a poor or amateur job because it’s “cheaper” winds up costing you more than money… it’ll affect your artistic reputation. Focus on your strengths to get yourself and your music from good to professional.

Pareto Principle: Summary

The Pareto Principle explains why the results you get aren’t always the same as the efforts you put in. To put it another way: the most important input is worth the majority of your results. The Pareto Principle is often called the 80/20 Rule because 80% of the results can often be attributed to 20% of the efforts. This is not an exact number, nor is it the only relationship that Pareto described.

The popular label: the 80/20 Rule is an oversimplification of a complex formula first described by Vilfredo Pareto. It’s easy to say and remember, but it puts the focus on a single point on a mathematical curve instead of on the predictable imbalance that Pareto discovered.

Vilfredo Pareto originally described an economic relationship between the percentage of wealth owned by a percentage of the population in 19th century England (80% of the wealth was owned by 20% of the population). George Zift noticed a pattern similar to Pareto Distribution, in that 20% of the input resulted in 80% of the beneficial results. Joseph Juran later applied Pareto’s Principle to industrial quality control, largely by solving the few (20%) causes that created the majority of the problems.

The Pareto Principle, originally developed as an economic theory, has become a fundamental principle behind: historical studies, industry, computer systems, computer programming, personal relationships, personal productivity, personal growth and now songwriting too!

The math behind the Pareto Principle is often misleading because it’s usually simplified to 20%/80% and because in many areas, such as personal productivity or growth, there are rarely any measurements to accurately support the math in Pareto’s formula.

Pareto’s Principle is applicable in many areas, even without math & measurement, because but not limited to:

  • Effort doesn’t equal results
  • Working hard doesn’t always work
  • Cumulative Growth

Three common mistakes in applying the Pareto Principle are:

  • Only doing 80% of the work, instead of 100% of the work
  • Over simplifying it
  • Trying to apply the Pareto Principle were it doesn’t fit

The Pareto Principle can help your songwriting efforts, helping you find and focus on your most effective tasks and songwriting processes. Instead of trying to pursue and finish every song idea, it’s more effective to select your most promising ideas to write, your strongest songs to record, and your strongest recordings to promote. 

Understanding the Pareto Principle can help you examine your songwriting workflow to find ways to increase your time on productive tasks and to minimize the time you spend on less important things. 

Leave a comment to help other songwriters:

What’s your songwriting 20%? 

Or:

Where can you increase your songwriting productivity?

More Songwriting Resources to Improve Your Songwriting…

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff

Trevor Dimoff has taught, played and written music professionally for the last 25+ years.
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