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Sounding Off: Simplicity

David Glasper
By David Glasper

People seem to spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out why they're unhappy with the music they've made; but it seems that often they're looking at every reason except the music itself.

You can understand why — it can be much easier to think about tangible, straightforwards things like musical equipment or problems with monitoring, than it can be to think about what is essentially abstract and emotional. The truth is that these are usually diversionary tactics — if you're not happy with your music, it's most likely that the music itself is at fault not the production or the equipment made to use it.

Sounding Off

Pleas not to become overwhelmed by the number of possibilities offered by modern musical equipment (especially computer-based studios) are not uncommon within the pages of SOS. This is good advice, and the same principle can be applied to composition — remember, just because you can do something, it doesn't mean you have to do it.

You might find that your music improves if you can strip it down to its core elements. This will force you to concentrate on what's really important, and learning to recognise what's really important in a song will make you a better songwriter. The simple approach also has the knock-on benefit of making recording and mixing a lot easier.

There are no end of things you can do to simplify your music. Take the idea of rhythm and lead guitar in a standard guitar band for example — just because you have two guitarists, there's nothing to say you have to have two guitar parts, at least not all of the time. If one guitarist has a really good riff, do you really need the other one to distract from it by playing something different merely for the sake of it? Why not have them both play the same thing and use the additional guitar to bolster the sound?

Bass players are also notorious for making things unnecessarily complicated — yes your lightning-fast slap-bass scales are very impressive, but wouldn't it give the song more momentum if you just hit the same note eight times a bar and stopped mucking about?

Drummers can bring their own problems, typically through collecting far more drums, cymbals, cowbells and whatever than they could ever reasonably need. They're sods for it, basically. Sadly they often suffer from a crippling lack of self-esteem, and, although they know they only really need two or three drums, a hi-hat and a ride cymbal, they assemble vast collections of percussion to make themselves feel more important. This behaviour should be discouraged for three reasons: firstly because it will make them think about (and therefore hopefully improve) what they are actually playing, instead of trying to figure out how to use every last piece of the kit in every song; secondly, because it will make it a lot easier to record and mix; and thirdly because it will mean you will only need to use the one van when you play a gig.

There's also the question of what's actually being played. Just because you know tons of chords, it doesn't mean you have to use them all. Not in every song anyway.

Lou Reed said "one chord you're alright, two chords you're pushing it, three chords you've got jazz". While this is an obvious exaggeration, there's a lot of truth in it; you really don't need more than one or two chords to write a good song. 'Roadrunner' by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers is testament to this — two chords all the way through (A and D, I think) but easily one of the most recognisable and driven songs you can hear. 'Tomorrow Never Knows' by the Beatles is another good example — one of the simplest structures imaginable, but still one of the most innovative songs they (or anyone else) ever wrote.

Structure is another thing that can benefit from simplification. Most people construct their songs in the same order because that's how everyone else does it, but there's really no reason to subscribe to the standard verse, chorus formula. If you've got a riff or a sequencer pattern or even just a single chord, and you think it sounds good if you play it for five minutes straight, then that's what you should do. Likewise, if you feel that what you've got is only interesting for one or two minutes, then that's how long it should be.

'Complicated' should not always be equated with 'good' when it comes to music. The important thing is that it's your music and you're under no obligation to anyone to make it anything other than what you want it to be. The only real rule you should follow is that if it sounds right to you, then it is right. 

About The Author

David Glasper is a member of psychedelic electro-noise agitators, the Resistance. During his spare time he is Assistant Editor for Sound On Sound. If you would like to air your views in this column, please send your submissions to soundingoff@soundonsound.com or to the postal address listed in the front of the magazine.

Published July 2006