If you spend any amount of time listening to today’s pop offerings, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that mainstream pop music is steadily dumbing itself down. Lyrics often fail to inspire, melodies are less than inventive, and chords are usually simple and repetitive.
By contrast, I’m sure I’m remembering a time when simplicity in songwriting was a feature, not a bug.
In other words, songs that stimulate us creatively are usually ones where simplicity is valued, where the songwriter amplifies one aspect (the lyric, let’s say), while other elements — the chords, the melodic shapes, the instrumentation and other production features — might take a back seat.
A perfect example of what I’m talking about is Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” from his 1970 Grammy Hall of Fame-winning album “After the Gold Rush”.
This song comes across as a simple 3-chord song, but when you look closer, it’s actually a lot more.
C Cm7 F Ab Gm7
C Bb Eb C
Because the melody, and the chords that support it, are repetitious, your creative mind is free to look for that one other element — the lyric — for a message. I’m not sure I can claim to understand the deeper, perhaps hidden meanings of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”, but certainly it’s a song about hanging tough, even in times of adversity, but everything tinged with a small dose of sarcasm.
I like that the song forces me to consider the lyric as its strongest feature. And maybe with today’s songs, I’m just old enough now that I’m not understanding the newer messages. Music is, after all, a language, and like all languages, will evolve to suit the times. Me? I’m getting older!
You may have to look longer and harder to find songs that speak to us the way the best songwriters of the past have inspired us, but if you are a songwriter, I believe these thoughts are still true of today’s best songs:
- Your listeners need to come away from your song having been challenged or inspired in some way.
- The various elements of your song all need to work together as musical partners.
- Your songs need to create feelings within the minds of your listeners.
- Simplicity in songwriting is a feature of good music, not a problem to be solved.
- Not everyone will take the same message from your songs.
It’s fine for songs to be repetitious, using simple melodic shapes and supported by simple, predictable chords, as long as there is a musical reason for that kind of simplicity. If, in the end, you’ve created emotions within the minds of your listeners, you’ve done what every good song is supposed to do.
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