Simplicity is a Songwriting Quality, And It’s a Good One

If you’re trying to build an audience base, simplify what you’re doing. It almost always works.


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Memoryhouse: The Kids Were WrongWhen you play your next newly-written song for someone, you certainly don’t want the first words out of their mouth to be, “Hey, your new song sounds just like…”. So in order to sound distinctly individual, some writers tread too far into the world of the weird. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with exploring the avante garde. But weirdness for weirdness’s sake, at least in the creative arts, quickly sounds pretentious. No matter how you look at it, a musical composition is a journey. And the more complex you make that journey, the more listeners you’ll lose. It’s a tricky tightrope walk.

In hit song writing, simplicity, by which I mean clarity, almost always wins out. Clarity of form, of melodic structure, of harmonic design, and of message. There are no weirdly complicated hooks, as it would defeat the primary purpose of the hook. Simplicity ensures that listeners remember. If they aren’t remembering your song, they aren’t humming it. If they aren’t humming it, you’ve lost them.

Simplicity is a beautiful quality to hone. In songwriting, it does not equate to dumbing down. It just means cleaning up the clutter, and providing a musical experience that’s pleasant and easy on the mind.

If you’re a dream pop fan, you already know what I’m talking about. Mainly pentatonic melodies that float over harmonically strong chord progressions, with non-confrontational, introspective lyrics, ensures that listeners get stroked into musical submission.

Dream pop may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it’s important to listen to anything and everything, and you’ll always find something you can borrow.

Take a listen to “The Kids Were Wrong“, by Toronto band/duo Memoryhouse, from their new album “The Slideshow Effect.” Simplicity is the name of the game, and they play the game very well. Rather than a standard verse-chorus design, they resort to a “first-this-melody-then-that-one” form:

Song key: C major

[Instrumental Intro – Melody 1 – Melody 2 – Melody 3] – REPEAT – CODA

All melodies are pentatonic, created from the notes C, D, E, G, and A. The “first-this-melody-then-that-one” design works well because the melodies are thoughtfully contoured. The first melody starts on E, and the second one moves up to G. The third melody moves back down to E as a starting note, providing a nice formal arch. In addition, Melody 3 distinguishes itself from the others by introducing a minor chord to its harmonic accompaniment. That’s simplicity.

The musical purpose, if you will, is to create a warm bed of nostalgia and psychological comfort. You don’t often see dream pop music hitting the top of the hit parade, however. That’s because most people need/want a bit more spice in their music.

But “The Kids Were Wrong” proves a point, which is that simplicity as a quality can be good. And it can actually serve as a good starting point to creating something more complex.

If you find that your music is everything that you’ve wanted it to be, but you’re just not building an audience base, it may be time to take it down a notch and explore the world of clarity and simplicity. The musical transparency that simplicity provides may be what you need, at least temporarily, to get listeners back onside.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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