Should Songs Be Simple?

Should you keep your songwriting simple? How do you avoid common mistakes that beginners often make? In this article, you will learn more about this often misunderstood aspect of songwriting.

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The role that simplicity plays in songwriting is often misunderstood. Many say you should keep your songwriting simple, and there's an element of truth to this. However, much of it depends on what genre you're playing and how developed you are in the area of songwriting. Regardless of those things, it is true that many writers tend to overcomplicate their work. This applies to musicians of all different styles. This can be a bad thing for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is beginning songwriters often don't know how long a song should be or how many parts it should have. As a result, they tend to overthink their songwriting and write too much. This can lead to songs sounding clumsy and amateurish. To avoid this, beginning songwriters should start small and work their way up. Your first song doesn't have to sound like "Stairway to Heaven." Stick to a verse/chorus/verse format, and write only four lines per verse. Once you gain some experience, you can proceed from there.

Second, people who are not musicians may have a difficult time relating to a song that's overly complicated. This is less of an issue if your audience mainly consists of other musicians, but non-musicians will not be able to hear the song from the same perspective. As a result, you risk limiting your audience. Again, there's nothing wrong with writing more complicated song structures if that's what your creativity leans toward. Still, this is something you may want to consider. Make sure your songs have sufficient elements of melody and memorability so they can be enjoyed by everyone.

As musicians, we have a tendency to think that more is better. However, when you think of songs that have stood the test of time, many of them are very simplistic in nature. The Beatles, who are considered by many to be some of the greatest songwriters of all time, were known for writing simple songs. The same can be said for many bands from the classic rock era. Although their songs may have contained advanced musicianship, many of the songs themselves were simple in nature.

So how does this relate to your own songwriting? For one, the song should contain a certain "sing along" quality. Although this obviously applies to the vocal parts of a song, it can describe other parts as well. The song also contains a few basic parts that naturally flow into one another. While it doesn't necessarily have to be verse/chorus/verse, there should be certain parts of the song that repeat themselves more than once. This helps reinforce the song in the listener's memory.

Here are a few common mistakes that you want to avoid

1. Writing too many parts to a song. A song with too many parts can be difficult to relate to and usually isn't particularly memorable. This can be an option if you want to write more progressive or experimental music, but the parts should still fit together naturally. Sometimes, musicians make the mistake of adding more parts to a song for the sake of sounding more progressive. If done badly, this can be like trying to put together pieces of a puzzle that don't fit. Start small if you are a beginning songwriter, then expand later if that's where your inspiration leads you.

2. Writing verses that are too long. This is a problem I see all the time with beginners. There's no definite rule for how long a verse should be. Sometimes they should be four lines, some should be eight. Sometimes, two is enough. It all depends on what's best for the song. However, beginning songwriters often try to write more than is necessary. This can lead to writer's block, and the end results can sound unnatural. I suggest sticking to four lines per verse if you're just starting. Once you have a better feel for what works and what doesn't, then you can use more personal discretion.

3. Sacrificing melody in the name of virtuosity. There's nothing wrong with playing fast, but you don't want your listeners to think you're just showing off. You want to make sure every part of your song is memorable and has feeling. A good example of this would be the solo in "Crazy Train." While it's technically advanced, it also retains a strong sense of melody. It has that certain "sing along" quality.

Of course, all of this is more of a general rule of thumb than an unbreakable rule. A song doesn't have to be simplistic in order to be good. It's important to keep in mind the context of your genre and the emotion you're trying to express. Most importantly, you want to stay true to your inspiration.

That being said, we often forget that some of the best songs in the rock genre are easy to play and easy to sing along with. When writing your songs, try your best not to overthink what you're doing. At the very least, I encourage beginners to keep it simple in the beginning and then build from there if that's what they choose to do.

27 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Sorry, but I can't agree with this, especially the "the most important thing is whether people will like it" sentiment. If you want to write music just in order to be famous (which has like 0.1% chance of success unless you happen to be a friend of a famous producer or something), then maybe ok, but last time I checked the main point of music was writing what *you* enjoy writing and playing. Also, while I agree that generally longer and more complex songs can fail in a lot more ways than short and simple ones, I don't see a reason why a beginner shouldn't try their hand at that if they have an idea for a complicated song. Sure, it may fail, but it's a way to learn the exact same way. That's what I did, in retrospect I see most of these long tracks were quite clunky and dragged at times, but I learned [b]a lot in the process, and after some trimming I'm still happy with most of them, as they were what I wanted to write and they were honest. And I could counter the "Sacrificing melody in the name of virtuosity" point with "sacrificing musical growth and development in the name of being entertaining", which is just as bad, and bands who recycle the same four-chord formula for decades hardly ever record anything [i]memorable (and even if they stay famous, everyone only talks about their first couple of albums over and over again). That's my two cents. Sorry, you won't ever convince me there's anything more important in songwriting than honesty. Writing simple and accessible music doesn't mean you'll get more popular either. (Case in point: Dream Theater, Opeth, Meshuggah etc. playing world tours vs. countless "4-chord" bands that have never achieved any kind of status.)
    Jes Johnson
    No offense, but there's an incorrect assumption in this response. The point of this article isn't "How be famous" but "How to write a good song." "last time I checked the main point of music was writing what *you* enjoy writing and playing." The main point of music is up to the person making it. I think honesty in songwriting is extremely important, and it's something I strive for in my own work. But I believe it's up to the individual musician to decide why they're doing it. "but I learned [b]a lot in the process, and after some trimming I'm still happy with most of them, as they were what I wanted to write and they were honest." There's no one surefire way to learn how to write a song. If this was your process, and you learned from it, then more power to you. I still suggest for beginners to start small simply because a lot of beginners tend to overcompensate. They don't know when to stop. I've seen people try to write simple punk songs that are like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Eventually, I have to ask, "Okay, where is the song in all of that?" "And I could counter the "Sacrificing melody in the name of virtuosity" point with "sacrificing musical growth and development in the name of being entertaining"" Again, there's an incorrect assumption here. The goal here is to write a good song, not be entertaining. That would be a separate topic entirely. Of course good songs can contain advanced musicianship, and there's no reason why they shouldn't. But I want people to make sure they're not just playing a lot of notes for the hell of it. The notes need to mean something. In any case, thank you for reading and taking the time to respond. Have a good day.
    Octane Twisted
    In the end the real question is "is this memorable"? It doesn't need to be simple to be memorable.
    Should Songs Be Simple? No
    In a way, yes. They get too complicated, and you can lose the soul and sincerity (if you don't know what you're doing. I usually don't, admittedly). Play what you're best at and work to improve, and don't worry about simplicity, imo.
    It's all about the melody, kids. Early Metallica, Bad Religion, any number of Godforsaken lowest-common-denominator punk bands, Lady Gaga. Pop music is usually more honest about it is all. The content can be awful, bland, incisive, cutting, but if you're interested in writing a good song, you need a good melody that people will want to sing/shout along with. Even if it's just you. So simple works a lot (Ramones, AC/DC) but look at "Black Hole Sun". Melody every time. The most successful prog has oodles of melody. ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets - melody everywhere. People want to sing along! How many math bands have you seen where you thought "Wow, those guys can play!" but you can't remember a single song, or even a single chorus? Good is subjective, so it depends on what you want to measure it by. Record sales? Not on this website, right? Usually, it'll be simply if you can remember it and sing it to yourself afterwards, or want to hear it again straight away. It doesn't mean you're selling out or being commercial, anyone can write music to fulfill a criteria, and if the writers wants people to remember it, that's fine by me! Personally, I'm just happy if I can write some decent lyrics to that weird riff I came up with ten years ago, which is why you've never heard of me.
    I can't really say I'm a great songwriter, nor a newcomer, but I don't think at all about how many lines a verse needs to have. I just write and when I can't write anymore I see what I've got. If it's a really long part I might split it into two verses or a verse and a chorus, but really I don't care. I also don't write like "this is gonna be a chorus". I write and if it's suitable to be a chorus then that's what it is. Maybe I then write a verse that's even better as chorus, suddenly the verse is the chorus instead. I just write instead of overthinking how long should this be and where should it go now.
    The song shouldn't be simple or complex, and those words shouldn't matter in any context when you're writing. A song should be exactly what you're trying to convey, and that's all a musician should be concerned with when writing - saying exactly what you aim to. Any descriptive beyond that is superfluous and fluffy.
    you write for yourself and thats the simple fact of music. if you write something you think others want to hear you will get nowhere as you can never know for sure what people want, the only thing you know is what you want to hear. as for whether or not you should write simple, what i tend to do is start simple and make things more complex over time where it fits or improvise around a progression. simple works, complex works, long works, short works, easy listening works, pure musical skill works, its all about what you want to hear not anyone else.
    The Count of Tuscany, Blackrose Inmortal, Tryptych Lux, all of those are like 20 minutes song and are extremely memorable. And i mean extremely.
    Might not be for "everyday" listeners. Although, I would agree with Count of Tuscany.
    Don Maclean - American Pie. That shit is like 8 minutes long and almost everyone I know, knows a good chunk of the lyrics
    Darth Crow
    "Like 8 minutes long" oh boy... there were actually times when I used to be impressed with that kind of song length. That was before I found Dream Theater, of course
    I'd like to know why this comment got downvoted. (I'd add a few songs of my own but that would be a pretty huge list.)
    "The Beatles, who are considered by many to be some of the greatest songwriters of all time..." Above Bach, Mozart, Lizst and countless composers and writes that just because they weren't the spoiled kids of the music industry of their time will go unnoticed forever, right?
    Oh how I wish this were a real thing! It's also ironic because Clara Schumann once said of Franz Liszt "He strikes me as someone who was spoiled as a child" or something along those lines. Liszt was very spoiled and so was Mozart, but Mozart was a bit more humble. The Beatles and Liszt are both very good though.
    If you look back in music history, many of these composers, were the "spoiled kids of the music industry"
    I mean I want to give you credit for bringing up masterminds like Lizst, etc, but... such an asshat, man.
    I mean I want to give you credit for bringing up masterminds like Lizst, etc, but... such an asshat, man.
    Darth Crow
    I guess the most important thing should be for the song to "feel" simple. Or rather... it should feel effortless. It doesn't matter whether the song is 4 minutes or 24, if it feels natural, it's ok. There's no point in artificially restricting yourself to, I don't know, 5 minutes and no more. The same can be said for artificially prolonging a song that doesn't NEED to be that long. In the end it's all about what the song NEEDS.