Songwriting tips from experts—is “simple” really the way art should go?

photo of stage

What gives a song shelf life? What makes some songs so special they’re still relevant a century after being written?

Tips on songwriting can be found at various industry websites, but one tip posted at Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) raised my eyebrows and made me ask myself a question.

Is “simple” really the best advice for how art should proceed?

music score sheet for guitarThis tip was one of two featured at BMI’s ‘On the Record’, a page where inside tips are posted. I liked the first tip holding, “The relationship between melody and lyrics go hand in hand.” Ideally poetry and music meld in a good song, with those elements coming together to make up a composite.

I’ve written a lot of poetry, so my ear will naturally go directly to the lyrics when I first hear a song. Most of the time. If there’s a strong melody, I might not pay as much attention to the narrative. In today’s mass market, lyrics often take a back seat to the music, especially if there’s a strong beat or the bass I love so much for reasons that may have to do with some long-buried-in-my-DNA attraction to drums and poetry recounting the deeds of warriors and kings. See “Beowulf” for more on that.

The other tip posted at BMI asserted:

“The most performed songs at BMI have very simple melodies and lyrics. The relationship between the two musical elements are integrated. Lyrics need melody to convey emotion. Melody needs lyrics to tell the story. A simple melody with strong lyrics is a key component to popular songwriting.”

I agree the lyrics need to be strong. I’m not so sure about “simple”, though. Consider songs that have worked themselves into the canon—“The Boxer”, “Hero”, and the remarkable classic dating to 1917 and made famous in pop culture by Kurt Cobain but originally introduced by bluesman Lead Belly, “In the Pines”. Lead Belly’s real name was Huddie William Leadbetter.

There’s also the matter of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Simple lyrics? Not even a little bit simple. That song is basically spoken word poetry with snips of music tossed in to create a classic.

A couple years ago my daughters met with a very successful songwriter in Nashville. He complimented their work, but stressed the need to use a standard format for country tunes.

Jennifer writes songs that usually feature a character and she tells that character’s story within the song. Rebecca writes songs that are darker—“Medicine Bag” is a perfect example. But their lyrics won’t conform to formatting. Both of the girls who make up The Crazy Daysies have heard and read poetry all their lives. Studying that genre, I think, made them more creative songwriters.

I understand the expert tip on “simple.” But if you adopt that within your process, you may never journey into the magic that is a complex song, with lyrics that go far beyond “simple.”

I worked as a writer for most of my professional life. Through experience, I came to some realizations.

The first rule is there are no unbreakable rules. Don’t focus on the commercial aspect of what you’re doing. Do focus on the truth in your heart and the vagaries of the human condition. The minute you try to adhere to an unbreakable rule for your art, you have lost your art.

If “simple” fits your creative piece, fine. But if it needs to be complex, toss “simple” out the door.

After all, without complexity, if Freddie Mercury had stuck to “simple”, we’d never have had a classic like “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

(Kay B. Day/Feb. 22, 2018)

Something to say? Do it here.