The rule of three

Let’s crunch the numbers on this one. Specifically, let’s talk about number three, trois, tres, san, talata (or however else it’s called)… It’s a number with a significance. And I’m not talking about numerology and forecasts, about how numbers characterize your personality or about religion and stuff. I’m talking about the meaning, the importance of number three in a plurality of cultures, and subsequently in forms of art. But before that, let’s have a look at a bit of history.

*Dissolve to white followed by high brightness setting decreasing little by little until the iris has the appropriate opening…*

Here we are. We’re talking again about Pythagoras. The ancient Greek dude that advanced in a number of fields and set milestone after milestone after milestone on how humans understand science, music, mathematics… well, the cosmos in general. He thought that number three has a certain significance. He thought that everything revolves around numbers and that numbers have a certain meaning assigned to them. So if that meaning is applied to all sorts of fields, we can find certain answers. And to that, harmony plays a vital role…

Although I mentioned harmony here, I’m not talking about harmony of music. I want to talk a bit about what people thought of the number three and how it has been used since, even in contemporary popular culture.

So, as I talked about ancient Greece, I kinda have to mention Homer (not Homer Simpson from The Simpsons, the other guy who has been attributed with writing the Iliad and the Odyssey). So in his epics, the use of threes was quite prominent. Not just in the story, the development, the phrasing and in what kind of obstacles the hero faced (etc). Triads were prominent in the lyrics, in the pacing of the words themselves. There had to be three things; twos and fours just wouldn’t cut it.

And we can find trios everywhere. In folklore tales (The three little pigs), in mathematics (cross multiplication), the right-hand rule in physics (heh, I remember doing the gesture on my exam paper), in photography (by dividing the frame into 3 by 3), in mottos (liberté, égalité, fraternité) and in a bunch of other stuff. But in literature it’s quite commonly used. It seems that a trio of events has more of an impact than a single event. It seems that three characters make up a better team or are more satisfying to follow. Not to mention the jokes starting ‘three people walked into a bar’.

But that sounds as if I’m trying to lure you towards the sacred power of a mere integer, which I’m most definitely not.

*Now, let’s have a dissolve to black and back to color*

As far as music is concerned, we don’t have many compositions in 3/4. Perhaps the most usual time signature nowadays is 4/4. That means that each bar of music has four beats in it and that we count 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. So, in that context, when we fit within a bar (seemingly out of nowhere) a number that can’t be divided into twos, things become more exciting. And that ‘phenomenon’ can be seen in a number of ways.

In the end of a section, when we want to transition into a new music idea, we can add something that follows a different rhythm, just to take things up a notch. Now, this has all sorts of applications. You see, it’s not the beats within the bar that are counted in fours. It’s the bars themselves. The thing is that we divide music in fours. You can have an idea that is one bar in length, but if you develop it a bit, it can become two bars in length. But, if you take that and tweak it a bit at its end, you can have a four bar music phrase. So, more or less, music is divided into four-bar blocks. Meaning that our taking things up a notch addition could be a single bar, which would break the 4-4 chain. If we want to amplify the effect, we could change the time signature, into -let’s say- 2/4. But what would arguably have the most impact or what would just make an impression to the listeners the first time they hear the song, would be a bar in 3/4.

We can also include elements that would have a noticeable contrast with the fours of the bars by adding triplets in a certain part of the song. That means that a single instrument, or a part of what an instrument plays has a significant change in its rhythm. For instance, if we have a song in 4/4, we can change the rhythm of the drums and divide it into threes, while keeping the time signature in 4/4. Or, we could keep the base of the drums as is and change the rhythm of the cymbals into groups of threes. And we don’t have to be limited with triplets; it can be notes with different durations. Again, the listener notices the change and thinks that the section is more intriguing, no matter how small the difference.

Perhaps the use of threes becomes the most noticeable when it’s applied to the melody. It’s when we change the rhythmic pattern of the melodic line and include triplets. Or, it’s when we group the notes in threes instead of twos. This can either be done by adding or removing a note, depending on what we want to do.

The thing is though that if a composition is based on its entirety in threes, the rule of three doesn’t have the same impact when compared to what I described above, as the threes are a characteristic of the composition, not a feature. In this case, doing the exact opposite (ie. using twos and fours) would be the way to go…

Well, these are some of the techniques we use to keep the listeners at the edges of their seats and keep them from losing interest, instead of just repeating the same old story again and again. There are so many ways to do it, but throwing some triplets in or changing dramatically the rhythm is something I really enjoy listening to, despite understanding the ‘mechanics’ behind it.

Interesting, huh?


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