As a songwriter, I enjoy writing and listening to simple music, as opposed to music that has: a thick rhythmic density, many different chords and too many different musical ideas in one song. Many people consider this to be simple music. Unfortunately they have the wrong idea of what simplicity actually is.
Some people refer to simple music as: boring, mass oriented, selling out and being a lazy songwriter.
Simple music is about balance. It is about taking 1 to 2 musical ideas, weaving them together and manipulating the musical elements just right. It's about adding in new elements - not so many to overwhelm the listener - so it engages their ear. Then ultimately adding in a few surprises that reveal something new about the song to hold the listeners interest.
Make no mistake there is plenty of simple music that is generic, uncreative and basic. That is more amateur music rather than creative. The clear distinction between the two is the sophistication within the music.
By sophisticated music I mean music that is easy to absorb, yet is still very unique and creative. This means having knowledge of many ways to build musical phrases and then organize them to create something simple.
You also have to use every idea sparingly. Often songwriters use too many chord inversions, key changes, borrowed chords, creative forms and other variations within one single song. Their song then becomes cluttered and difficult for the listener to
In sophisticated simple music, the composer must have a strong control over all of their musical elements. He prides himself on variations and ear catching changes and doesn't abuse them by overusing the elements.
With that being said just because it's simple music it does not mean you cannot have a nice flashy shred styled solo or create longer songs. It's traditionally based off the approach of 'less is more' in music.
Let's take a look at complex music. Just like simple music, there is some complicated music that is made with an amateur approach. It is generic, over complicated and boring. A lot of these artists believe their music is better because it has far more complicated elemental styles within it.
Knowing someone who wrote in this mannerism I will break down the complexity for you. If you take the time to look through his songs, you will find that they are technically far from complex. It's all in 4/4 times and are written with a lot of 16th notes or sixtuplets. Taking an even closer look at his songs, you'd find that nothing within them ever repeat.
I asked him about this once he told me choruses are lame and anything that repeats more than twice is boring. So his songs always end up being a five-minute book of random riffs that never repeat.
What he is lacking is control over the other musical elements. He couldn't make a song interesting without either: never repeat ideas - so his songs took a greater length of time to get anywhere - or only repeating lines a maximum of two times. This shows his actual songwriting ability needs work. Repeating isn't necessarily wrong or a bad thing, depending on the song. It still keeps it simplistic and not because of the repetition, it's all based around the use of elements sparingly.
I would rather listen to a simple song written in 3/4 with an interesting rhythmic pattern and some cool chord inversions, than a five-minute book of riffs just thrown together with nothing connecting them.
Now this isn't to take away from any progressive bands that have very strong songwriting ability. There are some great progressive acts out there that write very unique and creative music. There is the good and the bad in all kinds of music.
My advice for anyone looking to write progressive music is to start simple and learn how to write sophisticated simple music. A simple foundation will help you build a more complex structure. The only difference between the two is the number of musical elements in the pieces.
It's a lot easier to write a 6-minute song and have it sound unique, than it is to write a 2 to 3 minute song in the same unique fashion. If you can write a 2-minute song that sounds unique, your skills will transfer and your progressive songs will be even more engaging.
This can go hand in hand. If you write short songs, try to write longer more progressive songs. As you become more comfortable you will develop skills in all areas that will aid you in writing both long and short songs.
There's good and bad in every style of music. So before you label a song that isn't rhythmically or texturally dense as bad music, take a minute to really break down the song. You might be surprised by what you actually find.
Chris Glyde is a vocal coach, guitar teacher, lyricist and songwriting coach based in Rochester, New York. His approach to music and teaching are simple - master the instrument, but be an artist. Mastery is for options, not showing off.