How A Minimal Approach Can Help You Write Better Music

Music is a space where it’s tempting to approach things with an indulgent philosophy. If you think about it, everything from selling out shows to proving your music is being listened to over streaming platforms is dependent on numbers. The better numbers you can generate, whether it’s song streams, fans over social media, or downloads of your music, the better, right? I don’t think it’s that simple, and in an age where music is so intertwined with numbers, we run the risk of valuing musicians too much or too little because everything is attached to numbers now. Rather than adopting a “more is always better” mentality around your music, you could probably benefit in a big way from stepping back and embracing a more minimal approach––especially when it comes to songwriting.

The icing and the cake

What are the bones of a song? When you strip the production and added instrumentation away, you typically are left with some sort of chord progression and voice melody (for most pop songs). Think of the bones behind a piece of music as the bready part of the cake. The icing consists of things like catchy percussion sections, background vocals, reverb and guitar solos. These added elements are often what makes songs exciting to listen to, but they only add to the structure and bones that are already there. Icing makes cake taste good, but most of us wouldn’t want to eat just icing.

Songwriters can get into trouble when they focus more on the icing than the cake itself. Embracing a minimalist approach every now and again in your work can help you to focus on developing the structure and flow of your songs rather than on dressing up half-baked ideas into something they’re really not. Some songs are best suited to sound sparse and minimal and others benefit in a huge way from added instrumentation and production. Either way, spending more time thinking minimally can improve your writing.

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Finding the spirit of a song

Breaking down a song idea into its most basic elements gives you the opportunity to hone in its heart and character. Sometimes music loses its energy and spirit when too much is piled on top of a single idea. Rather than coming up with a song and adding other elements to it immediately, it’s always a good idea to have demos of initial song ideas to come back to if things go off track. This is a way to preserve the initial energy in the music you came up with the added benefit of being able to try out different moods and directions for your songs. It’s also important to note how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about when you first develop a song. Using a minimalist approach in your work can help you identify your thoughts and motivations for writing something and help you incorporate them through extra instrumentation and production later. There’s no right or wrong way to make music, but every songwriter can benefit from breaking things down and simplifying their work every now and again.

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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  • Jason Dodd - November 29, 2018 reply

    Hey I like the article. It’s all true. I do that all the time. I used to be in bands that would call themselves ” a wall of sound” like it was a badge of honor. It was reflected in our terrible recordings too. Musicians are always clamoring and are so desperate to separate themselves from the pack. They figure adding all sorts of production will do that. Wrong!
    My solo effort “Men Of Kent” gets back to simple music. The 47 year old me found that to be better. I basically put everything in, then take it out piece by piece to unmask the final product. It makes me happy.


  • Richard C Blue - November 29, 2018 reply

    True I too agree! I sometimes get all stressed out trying to come up with something to be a hit, or what “They want”, and forget how the simple fundamentals of a rhyme and melody can make the mood what ever you are feeling. We can forget that this whole music business is supposed to be joyful and for our entertainment or relaxation not stress! I think I will be featuring more simple songs to touch the soul! Thanks nicely written article.

  • R ZARB - November 29, 2018 reply

    Yes exactly, unless you’re a Jazzy guy who is skilled in the complex harmonic architecture of composing and developing that arrangement, if I write a song with more than six chords in it ,I feel I’ve usually got enough structure to build it up,after that it’s a mixture of luck and judgement allied to self awareness.

  • Alouette de Mer - November 29, 2018 reply

    I can see the conservatism and austerity of the modern age has worked its way into music as well. Minimalist music, minimalist jewelry, minimalist societal participation, minimalist perception of self, minimalist perception of work, minimalist perception of automobiles, minimalist perception of sex. I’m more of a hedonist by nature and I’m an out-of-the-closet Bohemian in my views of self and music. Wall of sound? Brian Wilson made a few bucks from the Phil Spector’s wall of sound concept. Some of the songs I’ve written and recorded are simplistic and some are more complex. But none are a pure wall of sound that’s for certain. Nobody likes the wall of sound pounding into their ears throughout the entire song, just as no one wants every song to be minimalist. So some of my songs are simplistic and some have simplistic movements interspersed with a wall of sound movement and so. Variety is key and taking risks is essential if you intend to stand out from the herd…for better or for worse. Some people love minimalist music and good on them. Some prefer more of a wall of sound or something in between. One size does not fit all, and if you goal is to make as much money as possible, you better adopt the attitude of catering to as diverse an audience as possible. For are you in the business just to hear your own records? No, you’re in the business for you fans. Leave eclecticism behind and try to appeal to everyone, and a healthy mix of simple and complex is always intriguing. “Good Vibrations” is a good example of this. Four different major movements recorded in four different studios for the unique sounds of each studio. The record company didn’t want to release it, said it was too complex. The song went to #1. Brian Wilson writes simple songs and also complex songs. They also told Sir Paul that “Hey Jules” and later changed to “Hey Jude” for release was too simplistic and would never sell, and it would be a horrible flop for the Beatles. The song is considered by music historians to be the greatest song of all time. The song everyone said would flop. McCartney writes simple songs and also complex songs. No one wants to hear an entire CD of the same kind of music.

  • Kayfas Ag - December 10, 2018 reply

    This post is very helpful to me.
    I’ve struggled with keeping my ideas after a while on a song. I sometimes forget what inspired me and the whole song changes into another concept.

  • Jeff Betts - March 2, 2019 reply

    I guarantee! The very first initial track and idea you record is always the best!

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