Singer Songwriter & Vocal Coach, Lizanne Hennessey - Voice Coach


This conversation is closed.

What is it about 'three'?

"Good things come in threes."
"Third time's the charm."
"Two's company, three's a crowd"
Being a third wheel... having a three-way... a love triangle...
The Rule of three... the top three...
Could ""omne trium perfectum" be fact?

If I type the word "three" into the search bar here on TED, I get a page full of threes. 3 reasons to do this, 3 ways to achieve that...

What is about three?

  • thumb
    May 15 2013: I have no historical perspective on this, but I can put forward one possibility. Singlets and pairs are ubiquitous in the natural world. Even in the body of most animals, at least those that come to my mind, symmetries give us apparent pairs of things- arms, eyes, ears, legs and singles- nose, mouth, head, sometimes tail.

    With ones and pairs being so common, three may be the smallest number that might have "special" or esoteric quality.

    There are very significant fours, of course, as well, but three has the virtue, in terms of being special, of not even being decomposable into pairs.

    Another hypothesis that I find less likely is related to the face. Babies are wired to seek out faces, and particularly the mother's face. Experiments have shown that what it takes for a baby to recognize something as a face is a closed convex shape with three markers in it, which are taken to signify eyes and mouth. Perhaps that initial, "wired in" positive reaction to three markers as a face is related to our attraction to threes.
    • thumb
      May 15 2013: "With ones and pairs being so common, three may be the smallest number that might have "special" or esoteric quality."

      Your entire post was great. I just thought that line summed things up quite nicely.

      Couldn't have said that better myself. Great post Fritzie.
    • May 16 2013: Couldn't agree more, Henry. Fritzie, this is so insightful.
      I love what you wrote about our faces - the focal points are indeed triangular!
    • thumb
      May 16 2013: Fritzie, nice summary :)
      I think 3 as a number finds so many references of significance because it is the first of cognitive extensions of an abstract counting system that our consciousness has evolved into. Zero (absence), One (existing materialness) and two (pair, duality) are most probably as ancient as human consciousness, just after our consciousness progressed from the ability to differentiate many from one. This is a number sense that is existent in many animals now.
      3 is the first of the series that human consciousness could develop as a harbinger of a fully developed counting system, approximately 20,000 years ago. It is interesting to note that geometry, one of the most ancient rational branch of study recognized that a dimensional jump from to one to two is only possible by three straight lines as at least 3 such lines are necessary to cover an area.
      The languages stopped evolving in numerical sense (three abounds in language structures, three tenses, three persons, three degrees of comparison, you name it) simply because numerical systems took over the job. There are still remnants of many underdeveloped numero-linguistic roots and words like 'lot', 'many' and group names like 'herd', 'pack' etc.
      The interesting occurrences of three like the ones many are stating here can be due to pattern seeking abilities of of our brains.
      For example, you can write down any number (however large) in words, count the alphabets and write down the resulting number in words again and go on doing it every time ending with 'Four'. Do you think there is anything profound in that?
      • thumb
        May 16 2013: What do you mean by "count the alphabets?"
        • thumb
          May 16 2013: 3443
          Three Thousand Four Hundred Forty Three
          Thirty Four (alphabets).
      • thumb
        May 16 2013: Oh, in the US, we would say for this "count the letters." The reason I wasn't sure is that there are some pattern-seeking traditions in which numbers are associated with letters and then used to find hidden meanings in texts. I am sure you have seen this done with some religious texts. Gematria is an example.
  • thumb
    May 15 2013: The first number to have a beginning, middle, and end.
  • May 21 2013: I am an applied mathematician. Let me explain the number 3 somewhat differently from your argument. First of all , the reason that all the "even" numbers are non primes except the 2, of course because all of them are divisible by 2. But how does the word "even" come from? My interpretation is that if you put 2 identical weights on both sides of a balance scale, the "arm" of the scale will be flat over the supporting surface, which we usually called as being "even" with the surface. Now, if we look at the arm of the balance as a straight line, then the the concept of the evenness would be similar to the meaning of "parallel".
    Now this could be followed with my extension of your observation. Suppose that we build a "balance" with 3 semi-arms, with 120 degrees apart from each other emitting out from the center support with a needle tip. Then when you put THREE equal weights onto the 3 pans hanging from the 3 arms, then they will also be balanced. They are balanced over a flat surface rather than over a superficial line. What I am saying is that we could have named the group of all numbers which are divisible by 3 as "steven"? (from the words "even steven") numbers as contrasted to the term 'even" for the numbers divisible by 2. But jokes aside, I would call these numbers "treven" (from the term trois or tres for the number 3 in Fr or Sp) If we all accept this new terminology then we would have a group of non-prime "trevens", except the value 3. Similarly, we could call a group on numbers divisible by 5 as "cinevens", etc.
    My argument is that the phenomenon of the "even" numbers is not mythical, but rather it was due to the ancient numerologists' not looking beyond the "one-dimensional reasoning".
    • May 21 2013: Bart, this is truly fascinating!
      Have you submitted this idea to someone?? Your reasoning is incredibly logical, the 'treven' group needs to be known!
      • May 21 2013: Lizanne, No, I have not submitted my idea to anyone, because it came up to me.the very first time. And don't worry about it. I am old enough that any of my ideas would be permitted for anyone to use as they like. I wouldn't even quarrel about the authorship anymore. By the way, I posted some new ideas in a current TED DISCUSSION about "utopia" which might be constituted as novel practical ideas. But again anybody can use it as s/he pleases.
    • thumb
      May 22 2013: So we've taken out all the evens and the trevens. That's a good start at finding prime numbers, since it also removes the fourvens, the sixvens, the eight- and nine-vens, etc. Now we just need to take out the fivevens and then the sevenvens ...
      I believe we're rediscovering the "Sieve of Eratosthenes."
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      May 16 2013: Wait. What? Did I miss a meeting? Have the numbers 1 and 2 been reclassified as non-prime? Why wasn't I told?
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          May 16 2013: My bad too! Apparently "they" decided zero and one are neither prime or composite. I think we should be able to enjoy the comfort of knowing that all natural numbers are either Prime or Composite, but, oh no. Even though one (1) is not the product of any other natural numbers (a valid definition of Prime) it is denied the highly-honored status (similar to the USDA meat grading system) of PRIME. You forced me to Bing it. Here's what I found: "If 1 is not a prime number, then any composite number (such as 12) can be written as a product of primes in only one way (here, 2*2*3), not counting different orders. However, if 1 were a prime number, there would be infinitely many ways! We could write 12 for example, as 2*2*3, or 1*2*2*3, or 1*1*1*1*1*2*2*3. Having only one way to write a number as a product of primes is very useful when doing math." So, XZ, once again we see math can be imprecise, arbitrary, and fickle.
        • May 16 2013: I like how the word 'fickle' has been used twice in this conversation... I wonder if it'll be used a third time?
      • Comment deleted

        • thumb
          May 16 2013: As Michael Scott, Manager, Dunder-Mifflin Scranton Branch said, "I'm not superstitious but I am a little stitious." Three cheers for TED's three foci . . . Technology-Entertainment- Design!!!
    • May 16 2013: ZX, yes! Driemaal is scheepsrecht! Third time's the charm! This number is definitely not exclusively used in English!

      "But three, is a-symmetric and still in balance." I like this idea - three could mean balance.
  • thumb
    May 17 2013: God the father;
    The Son of God
    The Spirit of God
    • W T

      • 0
      May 17 2013: A powerful trio.
  • thumb
    May 17 2013: 3 little pigs, 3 bears, 3 billy goats, 3 wishes.

    it's the most stable, most simple form for a structure. - the magic number.

    the traditional literature view of femininity - maiden, mother, crone/temptress.


    it's tidy
  • May 16 2013: Did anyone notice on the TED home page that there are three suggestions of talks at the top, and the middle one is called "Got 3 minutes?" 9 Talks, all under 3 minutes.

    It's getting uncanny now... Or, am I just paying more attention to threes because of this conversation?
  • thumb
    May 16 2013: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
    Our Triune Creator.

  • W T

    • +1
    May 16 2013: Could three represent emphasis? Or perhaps establishing something as truth?

    Fool me once shame on you.
    Fool me twice, shame on me.
    Fool me three are unreliable and have established yourself as such through your repetitive acts of manipulation and lies.

    Other threes:

    past, present and future
    solid, liquid, gases
    Earth, Wind and Fire
    The Three Little Pigs
    Three Blind Mice
    The Three Muskateers
    The Three Stooges

    And, also, in speech, repeating a word three times for no no!! yes yes yes!!! wait wait wait!!!
    I remember when Jimmy Carter ran for president back in the 70's, there was a tv commercial of a lady yelling, Jimmy Carter is "fickle, fickle, fickle"........I had to look up the word fickle, I didn't know what it meant. :P


    Feeling hot hot hot (
    Tonight, Tonight, Tonight---Genesis (
    More, More, More---Andrea True Connection (
    Shame, Shame, Shame---Shirley and Company (
    Never, Never, Never--Shirley Bassey (
    ** This last one had a different title in spanish.....but it was still three words...Grande Grande Grande

    WARNING: Above songs will bring nostalgia if you were a young adult in the 70's. Sorry.
    • May 16 2013: Interesting, Mary!
      I agree, it strengthens emphasis. If you say something three times, well, you really mean it.
      When I tell my kids to brush their teeth, I often have to ask them three times before they 'hear' me!
      And they often have say 'no' three times when they disagree!

      Love the list of songs!

      Thank you!
  • thumb
    May 16 2013: Lizanne... interesting question

    I am not sure what it is about the #3. I will share that for some unknown reasons it shows up at some significant moments in my life; I got married on 3/3/90 (90 divisible by 3), we said our "i DO" at 3:33 pm (a friend documented the time), we have 3 children 2 born in march, I am the 3rd child of six born on 10/3.... I think it is all rather odd but,if the number 3 is telling me something I have yet to discover an answer!
  • thumb
    May 16 2013: ". . .a threefold cord is not quickly broken." [Ecclesiastes 4:12 KJV]. 1 and 2 are not enough, 4 is too many. Odd numbers of objects produce more visually appealing compositions. How irritating are these altered song titles?. . . Four Coins in a Fountain-- Knock Five Times On the Ceiling-- Eight Times A Lady-- One Blind Mouse-- We Four Kings-- Gimme Six Steps--
  • thumb
    May 15 2013: HBO, CBS, CNN, WWF, FBI, CIA, USA, ...
  • thumb
    May 15 2013: I, You and They. Includes whole world in order of closeness.
  • thumb
    May 17 2013: Three simply means 'complete'.
    the word complete can be related to ultimate goal, ultimate happiness, ultimate destruction, ultimate mystery, ultimate gift etc.
    the pattern with three is completely 'natural'.
    the ultimate goal is enlightenment...(third eye)
    ultimate (third life )
    It means 'complete ' because there are various natural things and processes which doesn't need to be complete...
    so only the 'ultimate' combinations of nature require the 'third' to be complete !
    Hence, whenever we come across any 'ultimate' natural combination which requires the 'third' or which already consist of the 'third' is simply drawn towards this art of three...
    In order to know you will have to drop the 'knowledge' knowing is different from knowledge.
    So let's try to drop the 'knowledge' that evolution is continuous process (only for this question, as it will be 'known' once it is dropped).
    alternative for this 'three' pattern can be " true nature of existence: Evolution"...where the 'third' stands for the evolved one!!!
    • May 18 2013: Thanks so much for your comment, Samuel!
      I never thought of superlatives!
      And becoming a family can only happen when a third member is made, indeed.

      "Knowing is different from knowledge" - well said.
  • thumb
    May 17 2013: mind you - three's a crowd..
    • May 17 2013: Scott, that is the very reason I started this conversation.
      My son is involved in a sort of 'love triangle' at school. He really adores and wants to play with two other boys in his class, but is often 'the third wheel', or they use him to get at each other... It's a fascinating dynamic, and indeed, an example of how the 'three phenomenon' can be negatively interpreted.
  • Comment deleted

    • May 16 2013: Isn't this interesting??
      You really could go on and on...

      - there are three primary colors
      - it's the number of bones in a human ear
      - three piece suits
      - The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria
      - the three witches in MacBeth
      - the Bronte sisters!
      - three feet in a yard
      - 3D
      - ID, EGO, Super EGO
      - 'there's no place like home'
      - Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil
      - the Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (now you really know what a nerd I am)
      - Homo habilis, homo erectus, and homo sapien - the human species, for pete's sake...!

      What I am noticing, is how overwhelmingly positive these examples of threes are.
      Putting personal taste aside, is the number three used exclusively in beautiful, constructive, positive things?
    • Comment deleted

  • May 16 2013: perhaps it is because it promotes discussion , rather than the argument of two.

    Is also heavily steeped in the old religions of maiden , mother, and crone.

    Breeze thru the Womens Book of Myths and Secrets , and you will see where most of the references come from.
    • May 16 2013: Good point, Morgan, about threes being represented in religion, like the Holy Trinity...
      It's a strong literary and communicative tool.
  • thumb
    May 15 2013: Lizanne,

    You need to start a blog if you don't have one already. I build blogs and manage them. If you ever need help with that let me know. Your very good at coming up with thought provoking conversations.
    • May 16 2013: Thank you Henry! That is such a compliment! My Mom says I should write a book... I have no discipline though. I think I have questions because you all provoke me, in the best possible way, of course.
  • May 15 2013: Combination of superstition and awareness may add to its significance. 'Three men on a match' and 'third times a charm' seem to be evidence of both simultaneously.
    The other thing that is interesting are the words and scenarios that elude to 3 and its significance. Few is an example, one, couple,few... Middle child syndrome infers three but relates more to the second or true middle. Even third place trophies seem like consolation prizes to the recipients.

    Interesting question. I often look at numbers(birth dates) and consider how the numbers of a persons date affect the psyche. Mine being Halloween, 10.31 have interesting combinations and significance itself, and has played a major role in my life, which much like our hair color is unique to us and interesting.
    • May 16 2013: Neat thoughts, Jospeh!
      I never thought about three eluding itself - what a fascinating perspective!
      A date itself is three digits - day, month, year.

      This is getting more and more and MORE interesting!