Musical Simplicity and Success Often Go Hand In Hand

How to Harmonize a Melody eBook - Gary Ewer

Cold War Kids - FirstIt’s a common error to think that imaginative music comes from musical complexity. The thought is that if you write music that uses intricate chord progressions, elaborately entangled melodies, all partnered with bewildering lyrics, you’ve got something that should stimulate the imagination of the listener.

But usually, that kind of music just ends up confusing the listener, boring them, and ensuring that they won’t bother listening again.

In fact, simplicity is the most valuable quality of good songwriting. Simplicity, in this context, simply means that the listener can hear and understand each element of a song. What generally stimulates the imagination and stirs the interest of the listener is how those elements all connect.

American indie rock band Cold War Kids’ latest album, “Hold My Home,” is a great album for demonstrating the notion of creating music that easily grabs listener interest by layering elements that are clean, clear and transparent.

Considering their song “First“, the second track from the album, as a model of this kind of simplicity, you get to see how fulfilling a 3-minute musical journey can be while sticking to musical constructs that are clear and transparent:

  1. Chords: The same chord progression is used throughout the song. This is a trend in pop songwriting these days. That progression (G D A) repeats incessantly, but because of the clever layering of instrumentation and backing vocals, you never tire of its repetitious nature. I like songs that go further than this, but it demonstrates the notion that it’s possible to write something stimulating by sticking to the basics, at least with chords.
  2. Melody: Most melodic ideas are created by simply repeating the same note. And then at the chorus, a short 5-note melodic cell is created and then repeated over and over again. Melodically, there’s not a lot that happens in this song, and that’s intentional.
  3. Lyrics: Verse by verse, there’s not a lot of complexity with this lyric. It’s quite clear what’s being sung about. And yet, it’s fascinating to spend time with this lyric, and try to dig into its deeper meaning (“Heavy as a feather when, you hit the dirt”, “You wanna light it now, the candle from both ends/You get excited, you get excited…”) Like any good lyric, nothing makes you run for the dictionary. It’s deep without being pretentious. It sounds edgy when paired with the repeated-note melody.

And then there are other musical “treatments” that make this song grab attention: the instrumentation that drops down to almost nothing for the “You’re going silent” verse, and the pairing up of the verse and chorus melodies as melody/countermelody at the end.

I love complexity in music when it’s done right, when it coaxes me to listen deeper and look for more. But an audience can quickly lose interest when the elements, once separated out, all sound confusing on their own.

If you’re looking for ways to write and perform music that stimulates the imagination of your listeners, your best successes will happen when each element on its own is relatively easy to parse and understand. If you can save complexity for how those elements all work together, you’ve got something that should grab an audience’s attention and keep them coming back.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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  1. Yeah.. all the hits are kinda simple songs. Doesn’t get more simple than ‘Just the way you are’ by Bruno, 3 chords going in a circle, no bridge to break them up.

  2. Hi Lindlaw, I think you are certainly on the right track whatever route
    you have gone done in the past it is all good for your overall knowledge
    and your song writing abilities; whatever chord progression you chose its
    all down to your melodic phrasing that you use for your story lines
    Repetition, either Exact or Approximate , Contrast , Singable lines with
    important words placed on the dominant beats. The listener wants a
    musical journey that he or she can remember .

    Composer Modulations that sound smooth and not over used, always
    make interesting songs At the end of the day the listener hears the
    melodies , but when they have interesting but not over complicated
    harmony’s they can lead to becoming a song that you here someone
    singing or whistling, We very rarely here anyone
    doing that to Classical Music, but often Popular songs are loosely based
    on many famous Classical Composers Work

  3. I like your blog articles. I’m a late-comer to the music game, having taking up the guitar about 4 years ago at age 42. I have limited time to study music, and there’s so much to learn I feel stretched very thin — there’s guitar technique, music theory, guitar technology (guitar selection, set up, repair), recording technology (DAWs, VSTs, VSTis, MIDI programming, interfaces, etc.), learning songs, writing songs… I feel like a jack of many trades, master of none.

    This article was interesting to me because I have found that my song-writing approach was to play around with the different chords in a key, try different variations, till I hit on something that both (1) makes me feel something and (2) sounds original. So I wind up with eight to 12 bar progressions that meander a bit before coming home, and use at least one “out of key” chord. I don’t know why, that’s just something I liked to play around with. Well, one day I was working on learning some of my favorite songs, and I realized they are all very simple, 3 or four chord progressions, all in key, often repeating the whole song (verse and chorus). It has me questioning the stuff I’ve written before. If my own favorite songs use very simple chord progressions, then it seems I should try doing that in my own song-writing, right? Yet I’ve got all these elaborate chord progressions (40-50) that I don’t want to just scrap. And, too, I’m a little worried because I know how to create meandering chord progressions that go on a journey and come home, so that’s easy now I’m not so clear how to make a very simple chord progression sound unique and make it my own, make it take a journey, give it a strong resolution… Your article above was therefore very apropos for me. Thanks,

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