Peter Gabriel's "Panopticom"

Combining Complexity With Simplicity: Peter Gabriel’s “Panopticom”

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The issue of complexity and simplicity in songwriting is an important one. Songs that are too simple are usually understood and absorbed quickly and might pass out of regular listening rotation quickly.

Songs that are too complex, however, will find it hard to get traction with the general listening pubic. So the best songs, at least in the majority of pop song sub-genres, are the ones that offer a bit of both, where some of the elements and components are uncomplicated, but where other aspects give us “something to chew on.”

The question is how to balance simplicity and complexity within a song. Generally speaking, verses will tolerate more complexity than choruses. There seems to be something natural about a song verse that offers musical twists and turns, and then settles into something more structured and more easily comprehended for the chorus.

Peter GabrielPeter Gabriel has just released a new song from his upcoming album i/o, called “Panopticom“, and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. The song is mainly in the key of C# minor. The intro is harmonically and melodically “simple”, switching to a verse that offers far more complexity: a melody with large leaps, chords that use chromaticisms and inversions.

From the verse the music transitions to a chorus that, like the intro, offers melodies and chord structures that are much more tonally strong — more tonally predictable. Part 2 of the chorus moves double-time, but is similarly clear and uncomplicated.

There is something natural about songs that proceed in this way, alternating between simplicity and complexity. Done well, audiences may feel slightly confused in complex sections of songs, but they’re willing to wait for the storm to clear.

(Can I also say, as an aside to this topic, that Peter Gabriel still sounds amazing. His songwriting is every bit as creative as it’s ever been, and his singing still sounds as effortless and polished as on his early solo albums more than 40 years ago!)

The most important lesson we learn from “Panopticom” is that the contrasting of complexity with simplicity still requires structure. It needs a considered approach, and in that way, listeners can still perceive an important sense of form and shape.

How much complexity your song requires is up to your own personal taste — your own writing style and genre of choice. Not every song can (or should) sound like a Peter Gabriel tune. But for every pop genre you can name, there are ways to offer something to your listeners that makes them sit up and think, followed by something that sits back in a groove and fulfills the role of a good hook.

So in your own songwriting, you simply need to ask:

  1. What is it about my latest song that is requiring people to pay attention and think? And then…
  2. Does my song offer an engaging hook that’s uncomplicated enough to pull the listener in and give them something to hum.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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