If you ask someone my age (a child of the 1960s, a teen of the 1970s) what they think of today’s pop music, you’ll probably get an earful. Most negative opinions of today’s music will come down to the fact that songs today seem uninspiring, noisy and mindless. “The melodies aren’t interesting”; “The chords are too repetitive”; “The lyrics just don’t do anything for me.”
The thing is, you can find great pop music today along with all the garbage out there. But that’s been true of any age. Every era has great singer-songwriters and bands that are doing some really great things. You have to look for them, but they’re there. And trust me, there are singer-songwriters in your chosen genre today doing great things.
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Maybe sifting through garbage is a little harder today than it was back in the 70s. The online world brings everything to your ears. Before the days of internet, it was pretty easy to listen only to the radio stations that played “your music,” and the records in your collection were the ones you bought.
So based on percentages, today’s online world means you’re probably encountering more music that you’d not normally be listening to. That can be good, because it means that expanding your horizons might be easier to do in today’s world.
Simplicity Versus Mindlessness
But what about that claim that today’s music is just mindless gibberish?
Every era had music that was, when you look closely at it, pretty mindless, if by mindless you mean that the songs were small fragments of melodies and chords that were repetitive, and the lyrics were — well, mindless. I’m talking about songs like “Yummy Yummy Yummy” (Arthur Resnick/Joey Levine).
I’m being careful to make a distinction between songs that are mindless, and songs that use simplicity in their design elements. For me, songwriting simplicity is a good thing; mindlessness not so much.
Simplicity in the creative arts can be gorgeous. A great example in Classical world is “In Trutina” from Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The accompaniment is basic, the melody is completely diatonic with no surprises. The chords are predictable, where the biggest surprise is the IV-chord that starts the second phrase, when you might have been expecting a tonic chord. It’s anything but mindless. Its simplicity is part of the purpose and design of the song.
Mindlessness in music almost always comes down to:
- mindless lyrics, and
- mindless instrumentation and instrumental effects
How do you tread that seemingly fine line between simplicity (good) and mindlessness (bad)? If you realize that the song you’re writing is a bit simplistic, and it’s worrying you, ask yourself the following four questions as you’re writing the song:
- Is this song speaking to some important issue in my mind?
- Have I been inspired by some other work of art, where what I’m writing is a kind of response or commentary on that other work?
- Do my listeners get to know a little more about me that’s worth knowing?
- Is this song a worthy addition to my personal catalogue of songs?
If you can answer yes to all of those questions, you’re probably writing something where the simplicity is a positive feature of your song. You may need to pay special attention to the lyrics, and make sure that you’re avoiding replicating something akin to “Yummy Yummy Yummy,” and actually saying something important.
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