The Power of Simplicity in Songwriting

If you want to put a smile on a listener’s face — simplify your music.

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Happy person listening to musicAsk someone to name the greatest composer who ever lived, and you will no doubt hear the name Beethoven. His reputation as one of the greats is certainly justifiable. It may surprise you, however, to know that in his own lifetime, Beethoven’s music — particularly the music he wrote later in his life — was thought of by many as loud, confusing and perplexing.

In a way, that criticism had some merit. By the time Beethoven reached his so-called “late period” (from about 1813 until his death in 1827), his compositional style had definitely become more intricate, and much harder to understand by average listeners.

His famous Symphony No. 9 was an example of just how complex his writing style had become. But nestled in the final movement of that symphony is a lovely little theme – the very well-known “Ode To Joy” melody that almost every schoolchild knows.

That melody is a textbook example of simplicity at its finest. It uses only the notes of D major scale, no altered tones. The rhythm is comprised of quarter notes with occasional half notes. The formal design is as simple as it can be: AABA.

Why, at a time in his life when Beethoven was experimenting with musical complexity did he build an entire movement on something so simple? The answer is evident when you look at the subject matter of the text: an ode to joy and jubilation, to friendship, to kindness and happiness. He wanted a melody that could be sung by everyone, loved by everyone, and understood by everyone. He succeeded!

Songwriters need to learn this lesson of the power of simplicity. Complexity in music has its place, but if you want to touch the heart of the people you are singing to, simplicity is vital.

If your song lyric is one that you hope is transmitting a message of universal love, hope, peace or joy, that message can get clouded or lost if the melody and chords don’t partner well with it. Keep things simple, which in musical terms usually means using basic, strong chord progressions, and a melody that can be easily sung by anyone and everyone.

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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: #65: "Close to the Edge," by Yes. | 100 Favorite Albums

  2. I think this ties in with your point..I hope. But I’ve noticed than many of my favorite musical moments within songs occur when the chord progression consists of only two chords. Coldplays new single “magic” consists of essentially two chords. Maybe a passing chord here or there or a Dmaj13 and a Dmaj7 switched out occasionally. But he creates at least three or four memorable and beautiful melodies over a progression of basically Dmaj and Emaj alternating with a 4/4 time signature at around 90bpm. There’s the killer chord progression for the first single of an anticipated album by one of the most successful bands in the world. D and E, with a looped electronic drum beat.

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