Why 'Keep It Simple' Is Bad Advice

A contrary-to-popular-belief view on a common songwriting platitude.

Ultimate Guitar
When you started getting into songwriting, were you told, perhaps by your teacher or your more advanced peers, to "Keep It Simple, Stupid"? It is a very common adage given to beginning songwriters, most likely in an admittedly well-meaning effort to make the process less intimidating. Start with something simple, don't worry too much about how complex your arrangements are. 

That's all well and good, but there's a point at which the student should begin to explore more complicated ideas, and all too often, the teacher fails to recognize that the student has reached said point. When this happens, the student begins to limit themselves, still striving to take their teacher's advice and "keep it simple," without recognizing that the time for such advice has passed.

This is the danger in "Keep It Simple, Stupid," and in the following video, I intend to present an alternative view with which the student can gauge for themselves their readiness to expand their songwriting complexity, rather than relying on the approval of a teacher who may not be particularly in tune with their needs. After all, in many cases, the best instructor is our own self-awareness. Enjoy!

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32 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Blind In 1 Ear
    ALL music is simple. the only thing that changes is your point of view.
    Fugue's aren't simple straight off the bat. Music is simple when you understand it all completely, it becomes simpler. So, simplicity is merely point of view, not music
    not necessarily, I guess you meant to say all "pop" music is simple, and with pop I mean to say any kind of modern music for the masses, say rock, metal, radiohead whatever is in your radio charts. Now if we talk about the other kind of music like ethnic, jazz, "classical" etc well that's not very simple is it? Anyone with no musical training can write a pop song, but not anyone can write or make a jazz improv for example, or an overture for that you necessarily need musical training. So yeah I just wanted to clarify of what kind of music are we talking about
    Quit wearing a blouse and cut your hair.It's not the 18th century anymore. You sound just like goddamn Yngwie.
    Nope. He did mean all music is simple from a certain point of view. You just turn it on and you either enjoy it or you don't. Now, if we're looking from a different perspective, say a guitarist trying to learn it - "How the f*** do I play that? What's he doing in that solo section? Which chord is that?". And from a songwriter's perspective: "Hmm. Which key do I base this song on? Which chord structure am I going to use? Will it be 4/4 tempo or 3/4? And which scale modes do I use for the solo? Do I even have a solo to begin with, or do I omit it?" The point is, the deeper you get into the song, the more complicated it becomes - even a cheesy pop song can become utter mindf*** if analyzed closely enough (effect on the brain, etc). And even an experimental jazz piece can be utterly simple: "I don't like it. *click*"
    I can't really comment on Jazz since I'm honestly not too familiar with the genre, but it's not exactly difficult to compose a "classical" piece of music. Lots of pieces for classical guitar aren't overtly complicated, and wouldn't be that hard to compose. Even if you look at say the prelude of Bach's first cello suite, it's not that complicated of a composition. It's almost entirely just the G major scale.
    Quit wearing a blouse and cut your hair.It's not the 18th century anymore. You sound just like goddamn Yngwie.
    If it sounds good, play it. Why all the pretentiousness among guitar players? It's music. It's supposed to be fun. If it makes you tap your foot or bob your head, then good job. I didn't realize we had to keep score of how difficult the arrangement was. bleh
    You don't. But more complex music makes room for more depth, and more reward for the astute listener. It's wonderful to listen to songs that you've heard time and time again and still hear great tidbits that you haven't heard before.
    simplicity doesnt mean primitivity or lack of fine musicianship I for one value more a simple but really awesome riff that makes you "damn why i didnt think of that"
    AC/DC (And in fact pretty much all successful rock bands) would disagree with your sentiments.
    That's great! Now, do you want me to list musicians who would agree with KevinGoetz, or are we going to stop this name-dropping fallacy?
    And any half-decent band with actual instrumental proficiency would not.
    You're saying Angus Young doesn't have instrumental proficiency? When did you tested him for that?
    I think he worded this video poorly. What I think he means it that though you shouldn't write complex music for the sake of it being complex, you shouldn't write simple music just for the sake of it being simple either. You shouldn't listen to anyone about what your music should sound like, and if the music you hear in your head is complex, than you should try your best to write like that.
    You can always come back to your music and review it. Are you talking about simplistic, more "mediocre" approaches? (Like those in modern music pop, which combines a set amount of elements) Riffing is simple, where's the complexity? Soloing? Arranging? A creative mind might actually find all of these as rather simple. Just play.
    The way I put it is "Do as you see best." I for one have never gotten any lessons on guitar or vocals or songwriting and have been on an exiticing journey of gradual improvement ever since the dawn of my hobby waay back in high school. To have no one around telling you how, when and why to do things is, well, freedom. Everything I do, I notice getting more complex/varied every year in a way that's natural and not forced. Then again I'm also finally learning how to make truly simple songs, which I believe is a lot harder than hiding behind technical capability.
    I agree with the author, but I just cannot take him seriously. He look like a queer with that fag hat and it makes me question why won't he wear something complex and sophisticated like a fedora?
    Okay I saw the posters on your wall and that beanie and I had to stop the video 1 second in, sorry but I dont think im going to take songwriting advice from you my friend.
    Telling someone that "keeping it simple is bad advice" is bad advice!
    That was a complete waste of three minutes. You simply took three minutes to state and re-state an opinion. You gave no evidence to back up your claims (e.g. "metal is complex"); no examples of complexity being good. Even if I agreed with you, I'd still think you'd failed to make any kind of point. And seeing a guy with a beard wearing a Pokémon hat just made it embarrassing to watch.
    That Old Geezer
    Kevin I'm going to make a criticism that's not even related to your video's content but rather the video itself. I think your videos would be smoother if you didn't cut together so many 2 second segments of video together. I'm watching your video and it's painful to watch the camera change every 2 seconds. Again just a suggestion. I'm guessing you do, but if you don't perhaps prescript what you're going to say so you can talk for longer periods without cutting and pasting so much? Anyways just a thought.
    Sometimes the hardest thing to do is a 3 chord rock song,simple isn't always easy,
    I like to look at Keep it simple stupid as doing that for your base that you build off of...keep a simple group of triads or diads for your chord progression and then just build up higher and higher...simple is definetly not always better but it does provide a platform to stand on
    I'm waiting for the inevitable "it's harder to write a good simple song than a complicated suite"... (Sorry for being sarcastic but the cluelessness of this statement never fails to make me facepalm)