Guitar and music paper - Songwriting

Why Simplicity Works So Well In Songwriting

It’s something you hear a lot with regard to songwriting, but with other creative arts as well: Simplicity is a virtue.

Don’t get me wrong – I love complexity in music, and I always have. But once in a while I’m reminded of how powerful a song can be when:

  • melodic lines are clear
  • chords don’t wander too far from home
  • lyrics are easy to understand (even if there’s a double meaning to consider)

Complexity in your songwriting technique can be wonderful. Complexity makes listeners want to return and listen again. But complexity can also chase would-be listeners away if they’re not into musical analysis, but just want some easy entertainment.

That makes it sound as though I equate simplicity in music with “fluff”, but I mean nothing of the sort.

But if, as a songwriter, you find that in the pursuit of simplicity your songs just sound a bit too lightweight for your taste, you may be going about it the wrong way.

As you strive to keep your melodies, chords and lyrics from being too complicated, keep the following principles in mind:

  1. Love is a category, not a topic. Sure, we call them “love songs,” but simply singing that you love someone doesn’t usually give the audience enough to make that all-important emotional connection. You need to give more. There needs to be a story (actual or implied). Find the story. On the surface, at least, there needs to be something compelling — a story or situation — that the listener doesn’t have to go digging too deeply for.
  2. Keep chords from wandering into key areas that stray too far from your starting key. If your song is in C major, visiting A minor (the relative minor), particularly in the verse, is about as adventurous as you need to get.
  3. Allow melodic shapes to be repetitive and predictable, within reason. Sequencing works well: creating a short, melodic idea which than moves up or down by a tone and repeats, starting on that new note. Think of how “Groovy Kind of Love” makes an opening melodic statement, then moves it up by a tone, at least as a start to the second phase. That kind of predictability works really well, keeping melodies simply and immediately enjoyable.

Beyond those tips, remember that simplicity is also a virtue when it comes to the formal design of your songs. I think Jack Johnson’s music is a great example of how simplicity in the actual design of a song allows listeners to feel that they understand what they’re hearing.

So if you want a good model of how simplicity can really be compelling and attractive in songwriting, I think Jack Johnson’s “Better Together“, from his “In Between Dreams” album, is a perfect example.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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