I love musical complexity. I love how it stimulates my mind and gets me thinking. I love how complexity sounds pleasantly unpredictable. In complex music, I never know which direction the song is going to go, and I love that.
Writing complex music, however, is a risk. It’s not a given that complex music will always work, and it certainly won’t always work for every listener. I can’t get enough of “Gates of Delirium” by Yes. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
But in songwriting, simplicity always works, as long as it’s making the requisite emotional connection. While it’s common to have someone say about complex music,”Wow, it’s just a bit too weird for my taste”, it’s less common to hear “You know, that song’s OK, but frankly, it’s a little too simple for me.”
People who do say that a song is too simple simply mean that they’re looking for something with a bit more bite. But the simple song itself can still be completely fine.
All of this requires us to define what we mean by complex music. And then by extension, we can assume that simplicity is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of that.
In general, complexity of music usually means any of the following:
- The lyrics are structured in such a way that they don’t reveal their full meaning in one listen.
- The melodies, and all the melodic fragments within the song, are often of differing phrase lengths, where the key is possibly difficult to discern.
- The chord progressions are complex and definitely on the fragile end of the spectrum. The key is often not readily identifiable.
- The rhythms of the lead and baking instruments and voices are intricate and often elaborate, making great use of syncopation and other rhythmic devices.
Each of those song elements might be complex, and then there is another level of complexity that comes from how those characteristics are layered together.
As I say, I love musical complexity. But I also have a real love for simplicity. I love songs where:
- The lyrics present a clear image for me to focus on, where, even if there is deeper meaning intended, I can simply revel in the beauty of that image.
- The melodies are clear, somewhat predictable, make good use of repetition, and sit strongly in a key.
- The chord progressions are strong, clear, not overly long, and represent a wonderful little journey that partners well with the melody.
- The rhythms, even if they use syncopations, offer moments of clarity where everything “comes together.”
Simplicity does not mean that you can’t inject deeper meaning into a song’s structure. The simplicity of music, in fact, often causes us to think that there’s something more involved, something deeper actually going on.
The Eagles’ “Hotel California” is just such a song. The chords are clear, the lyric tells a “simple” story about a hotel, and the instrumentation is clear and easy to understand. But the simplicity of that lyric causes us to believe that something deeper is being described, and we’d be right to suspect that: “Hotel California” is about “…the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America…” (Don Henley)
Other songs that are beautifully simple in their structure:
- “Thirteen” (1972) (Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, recorded by Big Star)
- Dreamboat Annie (Ann Wilson, Nancy Wilson, recorded by Heart)
- We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37) (Peter Gabriel)
- Forever (Ben Harper)
This is not so much a plea for you to abandon any attempt to write more complex music. Some of you have been sending me songs for me to help with, and I love the ones that are edgy and complex.
But when in doubt, you’ll find that simplicity practically always works, as long as you’ve written a song that makes an emotional connection to your audience. That emotional connection is crucial. Simplicity itself won’t make a song a winner, if the key ingredients that touch the heart of the listener are missing.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
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