Complexity in Songs

The more full-featured something is (car, computer application, banjo, song, etc.), the more complex it is and so the more difficult to construct. (Also more expensive to fix and less apt to be fixable by yourself!)

This seems intuitive as we think about cars, computers and even musical instruments, but think about it in relation to songs themselves. ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ versus Dave Grusin’s jazzy hit ‘Mountain Dance’, for instance.

Long ages ago, songs were simpler. Even as we think about songs from the late 1800s and early 1900s, we think of songs with rather basic melodies and without the complexity of chords that became prevalent especially in jazz just prior to World War II.

I’m not sure if we have simply exhausted the available permutations on basic melodies for songs, or maybe we have generally developed our tastes to be atuned to more complex song structures. Whichever it is, I wonder if all the low hanging fruit is already taken? Can we expect any new “Twinkle Little Stars” or “Greensleeves” to be created?

And what about the infinite possibilities for songs that we have in our minds? Surely we could expect volumes more, even of simple stuff, to be produced by the remarkable creativity of the human brain?

I don’t have the answer to this, but I can see that much the same situation exists in the IT industry in that most of the easy computer applications have already been written. Nowadays, new computer applications rely more and more on pre-written libraries of code and on pre-arranged code frameworks in order to save re-inventing the wheel. This does save time in the long run, especially for larger applications, although it does replace one type of complexity with another type that makes learning the basics of a new methodology a longer process.

I can’t think of any parallel to code libraries and frameworks in music and composing, but I do see that in computer programming and engineering the easy stuff has been done. The low hanging fruit has been taken. If that’s also the case with songs, then to take up the work involved in creating new songs requires either a new twist on existing ideas (by developing your style sufficiently to set your work apart) or by creating new directions in musical expression (which also requires developing your style).

Although it’s true you could create a new song using the same motifs and place it in a typical I-IV-V chord structure, without anything new, even just a new melody, or perhaps a certain ‘hook’ to characterize the song, you’re just rearranging the components of existing songs. I’ve written some songs that would fall into this category; they differ in that the melody and some new chordal phrases are introduced. I would consider them to be unique and worthy of being considered songs in their own right.

So perhaps the creativity within our minds can reduce the complexity of songs to the level of being yet more ‘low hanging fruit’? Easy-to-grasp and to work with, yet only to someone who has exercised his or her mind to be atuned to this particular musical task.

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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