It’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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.