October 02

Chord Complexity in Songwriting

It is a fact that chord progressions in modern pop songwriting are far more basic than those used in either jazz or classical music.  This observation is usually met with upturned noses in songwriting circles – an odd irony, because how can you really turn your nose up at something that is more complex?  The response from people in this camp generally takes one of two forms, either: (1) a proclamation that modern pop songwriting is more complex after all, or (2) a proclamation that complexity is a specious aesthetic value.

I’m not going to address the first response, because that just really requires sitting down and diagramming various pieces of music and looking at their song structure – something which I can do just fine.  If you need to sit down and diagram pieces to discover this for yourself, you should go ahead and do that.  If you can’t actually diagram music in this way, then maybe you shouldn’t be a part of this conversation.  I’m not interested in responding to the first question, because I’m not worried about being wrong about it.  Because I’m not wrong.

The second response, however, is of more interest – I believe the response is based in a serious misconception of the role of chords in music – a version of something I will refer to as the “ornamentation” theory of songwriting.  The “ornamentation” theory says something like this: The act of songwriting is the act of ornamentation where aesthetic value is added to a song by way of ornamenting it with aesthetic items.  The ornamentation theory is most commonly on display when songwriters add metaphor to song – songwriters commonly try and animate a song with aesthetic value by throwing in metaphor here and there, the more clever the metaphor the better.

So it goes with chord complexity.  Chord complexity is construed as an aesthetic value, where the more complex the chord set, the more aesthetic value is added to a song, when one ornaments the song with it.  It is construed of as being a kind of per se aesthetic good that one peppers a song to make it better.  Of course, no serious musician views the relationship between chord complexity and aesthetic value in this way – and no serious musician should ever buy into the ornamentation theory of music either.  Or at least no serious musician should ever buy into it as the dominant source of aesthetic value.  So the second response (objecting to the idea of chord complexity) is based on a mistaken view of why chord complexity is important.

What is the relationship between chord complexity and aesthetic value?  I think it’s more close to the following.  Each and every chord set and chord progression provides opportunities for expressing a different set of emotions in the available universe of human emotion, and these in turn represent a wide and varied universe of aesthetic values.  Mathematical complexity of a chord progression isn’t per se aesthetically valuable (or at least not overwhelmingly valuable), though expressing sophisticated emotions can oftentimes require dealing with a more complex chord set.

Given this view of the relationship between chord sets and aesthetic value, it is baffling then why one would balk at the usefulness of chord compelxity.  In order to express a very great many things, you need to have some mastery of the universe of possible chords sets and chord progressions.  You are hobbling yourself as an artist by not giving yourself the skills at dealing with a more varied and diverse chord set.

Chord complexity viewed as a kind of per se aesthetic value is a specious value – but nobody in their right mind would interpret chord complexity as being valuable in this way.  It’s valuable because having a competency with more complex chord sets allows you to express a great many more things than having a smaller chord set.  And as an artist interested in expressing, amongst other things, the wide universe of human emotion – you should have an interest in developing your competency with a wider array of chords.