In the mid-60s to early-70s, there was a notable attempt by some pop musicians to make rock music more respectable by borrowing compositional techniques from the classical and jazz genres. Called progressive rock, it gave listeners a more intense musical experience by offering longer songs that included extended instrumental sections, more advanced lyrics, and complex musical features in general.
One thing it didn’t usually offer was instant gratification for their audiences. Like classical music, prog rock often required many listens to fully grasp and appreciate, but its fans were willing to put in the time necessary to more fully understand the complex nature of the music. The major early proponents of prog rock (Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and others) gained enormous respect for their contributions to the genre.
I want to focus a little on that issue of instant gratification for which audiences usually seek, and to ask a question: Is it possible in today’s pop music world to offer audiences a more sophisticated kind of music, the kind offered by progressive rock, but to still allow for a more immediate kind of musical satisfaction?
Instant gratification (or instant understanding) and sophistication appear to always work at cross purposes in music and indeed in anything, in the sense that we think something (or someone) is sophisticated if it takes many encounters to fully appreciate, which usually cancels out the possibility of instant understanding.
Some singer-songwriters have found a balance that works well: Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Kate Bush, and groups like Genesis, which redefined their approach for the 80s, taking pop music and adding progressive rock techniques.
In many respects, today’s label “indie” can mean that a group has strayed slightly off the norms of pop music’s beaten track, allowing a greater sense of innovation and creativity than pop music usually permits. But it’s done so with an eye to “clickability”. And that’s where the waltz between instantaneous gratification and sophistication really gets going.
If you’re a singer-songwriter looking to class-up your music, but you don’t want to risk alienating your audience or impede building a fan base, here are some tips and ideas to consider:
- Create Song Cycles. If you are interested in borrowing progressive rock’s technique of creating longer, multi-movement works, make each “movement” a separate song. Chicago did this with their multi-movement 1970 piece called “Ballet For a Girl in Buchannon” (James Pankow). That song cycle provided two big hits for Chicago: “Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”. Other notable examples are Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the so-called “second side” of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album. Song cycles often feature recurring themes as a way of adding structure and cohesiveness to song cycle formats.
- Work toward using more sophisticated lyrics. Musical sophistication almost always includes writing lyrics that require many listens before they’re fully comprehended and appreciated. Becoming a powerful lyricist doesn’t happen just by wishing it to be; you need to spend time working on this. The best way to develop your lyrical abilities is to read and study the lyrics of great writers. Read them, analyze them, and then use them as models for your own work as you seek to improve.
- Balance the fragile quality of complexity with the strength of predictability. Try this: listen to the Yes piece “The Gates of Delirium”. It’s a wonderful multi-section work that sounds better with each listen. But notice this: they move back and forth between sections of great complexity (the instrumental opening) and then relative simplicity (the opening vocal). Those more simple sections offer a respite to the audience – a chance to let their brains rest before diving back in to something more complex.
- Improve your songs’ instrumental concept. One thing most of the prop rock groups from the 60s and 70s had was instrumental prowess. If your guitar playing doesn’t rise much above strumming chords, today’s world offers you technology to take things further, and you really need to develop that part of your musical approach as an important ingredient for making more sophisticated music.
- End with something simpler to understand. If you’re trying for instant gratification but want to provide a more challenging experience for your listeners, move the complex stuff to the middle of your song and end with something simpler. To again use an example from Yes, their song cycle “Close to the Edge” from the album of the same name, has moments of clarity and moments of great complexity, but it all ends with a rousing anthem-like theme that’s easy to comprehend. By ending with simplicity, it gives the audience the impression that “they get it”, even if they don’t really. A happy audience at the end of a song makes it more likely they’re return to give it another listen.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter
Gary has written 10 songwriting eBooks, all of which are available in the “Deluxe Bundle” package. That bundle is currently being offered at a discount price. Take advantage of that price discount today. Read more.