Progression: Music Theory 113 – Simplicity, Restraint, and when Less is More

- Posted June 12th, 2018 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Last month we covered the idea of structure, form, and creating holistic musical statements. We’re at a point now where these concepts are quite difficult, so I highly recommend that you go back and read through my previous articles which will help contextualise what we know by this point. We’re building on what we talked about last month with all of the elements of music theory intermingling to create a single refined musical statement. We’ve learned all about how to make very exciting and high-brow musical material, but should it always be full of these difficult concepts? Is it sometimes okay to just use three chords and a simple melody? I guess it’s time to find out.

Let’s jam.

I’m so glad that this month’s post is about simplicity. This took me a grand total of 2 minutes to edit.

But Three Chords and a Simple Melody is so Boring!!!

Ease of Access and Familiarity

Boring is a point of view. There’s lots of music in the world that uses three chords and a simple melody and creates a great musical statement. I like to think about the entire backbone of popular music since the advent of the blues. The blues is made up of chords I, IV, and V and functions on a simple 12 bar form. It has never needed to change and has informed the entire backbone of rock and popular music. Most rock and pop songs will hinge on the I, IV, and V chords. It is also quite funny to mention that most early classical music also hinges quite heavily on the I, IV, and V chords, but that’s a complete other argument altogether.

Songs like: Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Walk of Life by Dire Straits and many more.

This isn’t even mentioning the myriad of I V vi IV four chord songs that exist in the world and have populated popular music for decades (dating back to even songs like Auld Lang Syne).

If you don’t understand these roman numerals I would highly suggest to return to my earlier posts about harmony.

Auld Lang Syne only needed four chords to be the biggest Scottish banger in the universe. Why do you need more?

This simplicity has a place in music in that it is easy to listen to. It is part of a pre-established norm that we just intrinsically understand. Why should we decide that this is no longer okay for us to participate in? Our music doesn’t need to stray away from tradition to be exciting and engaging. Even the song Africa by Toto has a section that uses the four-chord song progression and everyone heralds that song as a well written song. Same thing with Don’t Stop Believing by Journey.

Juxtaposition is Key

When do we feel the hungriest? Most of you will probably answer that it’s when you haven’t eaten for a while. I think that is probably fair in the realm of music as well. We feel more effected by musical changes when they arrive at a destination different to where we currently are. With the example of Africa by Toto we can hear that the verses are populated by long passages of long sustained chords, soft drums, soft solo vocals, and a couple of clever outside-the-key harmonic changes. The chorus is very different. It has a higher dynamic, with more layers of vocals, a more traditional chord structure, and therefore feels entirely different to the material that precedes it. It separates itself from what comes before and has a much deeper impact because of this. This simplicity makes the chorus more familiar to us from the outset, and the remaining elements help push the contrast of this section from the previous one.

Another great example of simplicity creating contrast is in the classical realm. Dvorak’s 9th Symphony: “The New World” is a phenomenal marvel of a symphonic work with four stunning movements based on the newly discovered America. Dvorak wrote the work whilst separated from his family as the head of music at the Conservatory of America. He based a lot of what he wrote on what he heard in the folk music of America, which funnily enough was based heavily on chords I, IV, and V.

The first movement of the New World Symphony is best described as quite aggressive and angsty, whereas the second movement moves to a very somber, slow, and simplistic setting. It has a beautifully simple melody draped over simple chords. On its own this piece of music is remarked as one of the most stunning pieces of orchestral music ever written, but the true beauty of this piece comes with context. The slow and expressive nature only truly hits home when it’s compared to the incredibly fast and aggressive first movement. This in turn returns us to a shocking third movement that contrasts the second one, and perhaps would have less impact if it directly followed the first movement. This contrast is definitely an argument for using simplicity as a building block of your writing process. Simplicity will make complicated sections sound more complex.

A very simple melody, and a very simple harmony. All you need to write one of the most influential pieces of classical music of the past few centuries.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

Simplicity is somewhat of a difficult thing to talk about, because what is simple to one person, may be complex to another. The entire metric of ‘simplicity’ is one that we create based around our own conceptions of ease. These conceptions can be great for forcing output from us, but also detrimental in the form of a constant need to push for new ideas. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel for the wheel to be functional. No idea is too simple. There are plenty of songs that make use of a single chord for an entire section, or make use of two chords (you mightn’t believe it, but Uptown Funk is two chords the whole way through). The concept that an idea is too simple holds us back from putting pen to paper because we might deem it to be too simple. Perhaps we worry about how someone might judge our work if it is deemed ‘too simple’ or perhaps we just hate the concept of repeating ourselves, but sometimes you have to allow simplicity to take hold.

I hope this has helped you to rethink the role that simplicity fills in music and how you can use simplicity to expand your musical process. Please share how this knowledge has helped you with your own craft! If you have questions, recommendations for topics, or even just want to share what you’ve learned, get in touch with me at tuberzmcgee (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m always happy to listen/read/help out.



Note: traducción al Español por Pixel_Guy encontrado aquí


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