Thursday, December 27, 2012

Simplicity Versus Anti-Music


One student that took piano lessons from me was self-taught.  He could play by ear with some coordination and rhythm but couldn’t identify the chords.  He had no idea what he was doing.  He’d been playing for years but had stagnated in his own limited box of knowledge.

“Play something.”  I asked

“Let me play you something I wrote.”  he said.

I gave him the nod and off he went.  The first thing that hit me was a shock wave of volume that nearly blew me over.  The sheer madness of no timbre pierced the back of my eyeball as he beat up my piano with the first movement of his symphony.

He started in C and must have modulated to every key by the time he was done, with undisciplined resolution and dissonance.  There were 20 different chords, a dozen or more rhythms and endless measures of nomadic wanderings (of the unwhistling variety).

I was astonished that one could string together so many meaningless notes and chords to create what might almost be defined as anti-music.  If there is such a thing, this truly came close to it.

“What do you think?” he asked, eagerly awaiting my reaction.

I could see he was proud of his work and I didn’t want to deflate his spirit for his obvious love of music.  I told him that it was obvious he had raw talent and desire.  I commended his inquisitive nature to have taught himself what he knew so far.  His proficiency skills were touted as well above average.  But I had to tell him the truth.

“You misunderstand what music is” I began, trying to figure out a delicate way to deliver the message.  “Think of some of the greatest songs in the world; Home On The Range, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The Star Spangled Banner and any catchy top-40 hit.  What do they all have in common?”

Simplicity.  Good music in 3 minutes is not like a 5 course meal.  Good music (form-wise) has a nice melody, a few good rhythms and a strong foundation in 1-4-5.  A song has a beginning, middle and end and conveys an idea or emotion within a limited, well-thought-out, time frame. The subject is endless but on a foundational level, I think those things at least define the form.

Music is not something that is all over the place.  Most songs have 4 or 5 chords and 3 basic rhythms.  Don’t think too hard.  Stick to the art form and keep it simple.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

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