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  • Writer's pictureGuy G. Gorman

It's of Simplicity that I Sing

Is Thoreau the godfather of popular music? He extolled the virtues of simplicity.

(Do you think he used Occam's Razor when he shaved? :-D )

Thoreau even had an opinion on drumming (sort of) :-D

In Walden he says, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away"

Sometimes the best drum beat is simple, and we who have tried to learn as much about music (and life!) often have a tendency to overthink as we try to make the best choice.

I've been struck by couple of things I've recently learned.


I was reading about Johnny Cash and his first band, The Tennessee Two. I was interested to read how Luther Perkins composed his classic guitar leads: it was all he could play! Undistracted by advanced technique, he came up with those signature guitar lines that are so timeless!


I was watching a YouTube video by Paul Davids: "What Makes Rock Sound Like Rock"? . In it he takes some time to go through several complicated technical and theoretical explanations.* Near the end, though, he points out that the most popular chords in classic rock songs are the first ones you learn: E, A, D, G, C . Once again, the simplicity inherent to being a beginner wins the day!

Here are a few other examples to support the power of simplicity in music/art:

Johnny Ramone is listed by Rolling Stone as the 28th greatest rock guitarist of all time. His career was built on sliding power chords up and down the fret board, rarely even having to change his finger positions. Of course his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, The Ramones, was built on the same simple premise.

As I have been belatedly learning classic cover songs, I have been struck by how simple many of them are. All these years I've been trying way too hard!

As I have become exposed through my teaching to more dance music numbers, I've realized that many of them basically just hang on one chord!

Our tango teacher says that students almost always overdo new steps. The real challenge as a teacher is to get them to simplify.

Now there is a ton of great music and art that is very complex!** I'm not putting that down!

But maybe we can learn some life lessons from simplicity in music and art. After all, isn't that what music and art are about: expressing life?

Mindfulness is all the rage these days. As I understand it, it is about getting rid of lots of unnecessary, unhelpful thoughts.

Einstein sought a Unified Field Theory: one equation that would explain everything (sounds like God to me).

Back to Thoreau, he had something to say about simplicity in fighting evil: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

I think we can turn his idea around in a positive way, pushing complications aside as we search for the root of what is important as we create music, art, and life.***

Superfluous Thoughts:

* An especially interesting one for me: 1) Amplification favors major chords. The overtones emphasized by an over driven amp are primarily major 3rds and 5ths. Thus playing a single note on an electric guitar at high volume has the richness and fullness of a chord.

** But two of the most memorable lines by Beethoven are very simple: the beginning of his Fifth Symphony, the famous "Duh, duh, duh, Duuh! Duh, duh, duh, Duuuuuh!" (Pun with the "duh's" unintended.) and "Ode to Joy," one of the very first songs children learn to play.

***And, of course, what is one of the biggest challenges in editing this blog? Simplifying!

Interesting Links:

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