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  • Writer's pictureJay EuDaly

Simple & Complex Music

Paraphrase: "There's two kinds of music; good and bad." - Duke Ellington/Louis Armstrong/Gioachino Rossini.

First of all, the context for the "two kinds of music" statement above has to do with how music is artificially carved up into genres, that is, marketing categories:

"Do you play Jazz music?"

"There's two kinds of music; good and bad. I play the good kind." - Louis Armstrong.

See the context?

Italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was credited in 1863 with saying: “My dear sir, there is no such distinction as you suppose between Italian, German and French music; there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.”

You see? The "good and bad" statement is a reaction to music being artificially categorized as Italian, German or French.

In my opinion, when it comes to music, there is no good and bad, there is only what you like and don't like.

"I know it's only Rock-and-Roll, but I like it!" - the Rolling Stones

I've struggled to come up with a word that has no value judgment attached. Unless & until I think of something better, the word I've settled on is, "complex/simple."

Complex music has evolved from simple music. Evolution, in this context, is an organic process that has no value attached to it, it just is. Things evolve, and devolve, and evolve again; and "good" or "bad" is not part of the picture. So....

There's "evolved/complex" music and "not-so-evolved/simple" music. It's a continuum that has all music existing somewhere along it all at once.

Historically in the West, popular music has generally evolved from simple to complex in content. But with each step forward in complexity, the simple forms did not disappear, they remained alongside their more complex offspring.

Furthermore, many times simple music evolves as a reaction to the complex music.

"Dance music will always be with us." - John Elliott

It can be compellingly argued that after about 1,000 years of increasing complexity, in the 1950s popular music devolved. The evolved music didn't disappear; it's still here, just not "popular." And "devolved" doesn't equal, "bad."

Consider the move Miles Davis made from Bop (complex) to his "Kind of Blue" period (simple) in the late 50s. I wouldn't say "Kind of Blue" was, "bad." Wikipedia says,

"Davis was one of many jazz musicians growing dissatisfied with bebop, however, and saw its increasingly complex chord changes as hindering creativity."

"...complex didn't equal profound." - Todd Wilkinson.

Consider Rock-n-Roll. In the 50's it started out with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and so on. Simple musical forms that drew on and hybridized Blues and Country music. Through the '60's it evolved into Cream, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa - on into the '70s with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, ELP, Yes - clearly increasing in complexity. Now we have fusion guys like Alan Holdsworth, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Oz Noy et al.

In the eighties Rock became extremely popular. The eighties metal/pop (Van Halen, Bon Jovi, etc.) was not all that complex but it was certainly more complex than the 50's-era Rock that came before it. There was a certain amount of chops required to play it, especially if we're talking about certain bands, like Van Halen. Eddie Van Halen definitely raised the bar for Rock guitar playing. In the '90's Pop Rock devolved into Grunge (Nirvana). Now 30 years later, some would argue Grunge has evolved into more complex forms.

Remember, "simple" does not equal, "bad" and "complex" does not equal, "good." Simple equals simple and complex equals complex.

Leaving aside the question of dividing music into marketing categories (genres) which is actually the question being addressed in the Ellington/Armstrong/Rossini quote above (context!), every style of music contains a continuum of simple to complex. There is simple jazz and complex jazz, simple rock and complex rock, simple country and complex country.

So it all boils down to what you like. And what you like is the result of what you've been exposed to - you like what you grew up with. It's random - the time, place and circumstances of your formative years. People who were teenagers in the '90's feel the same way about Nirvana as I do about Jimi Hendrix or Cream, which is the same way my mother feels about Frank Sinatra.

Now there IS good technique and bad technique. Good technique is objectively and logically definable. Good technique is generally required in order to play more complex music - but simple music can also be "good" and the technique requirements aren't as rigorous in that case, so good technique is not necessary for "good" music to occur.

Some would argue "good" music must have feeling. That's true, but I have argued elsewhere that the feeling in music is supplied by the listener, not the musician.

So we are right back to "good" music being defined by the listener.

Many musicians subscribe to the Ellington/Armstrong/Rossini quote above taken out-of-context without thinking through the implications. It causes them to sit in judgment about what is "good" and "bad" music.

Musical snobbery is an ugly thing, especially when it falls along genre or stylistic lines, which are artificial.

In general, I've found that intimidatingly good musicians are not snobs; they love and draw from all styles. They appreciate other musicians even if they're inferior technique-wise. Onstage they'll compensate for weaker players and still love playing. Really good musicians are still in touch with the simple child-like joy that they started out with for simply making noise and playing music - even the simplest of music.

In the long run, I'd rather work with a less-than-monstrous guy who has a joyful attitude, is easy to get along with and has minimum drama over the monstrous musician who has an elitist, snobby attitude and creates drama wherever he goes. Those guys tend to suck the fun out of playing! The hang is the thang.

Among the few with an elitist attitude with which I've had personal experience, many times the snobbery is a compensating mechanism for insecurity - even monster players can be insecure. And that goes for practitioners of simple music just as much as practitioners of complex music. There are Blues, Rock and Country snobs just as surely as there are Jazz snobs and Classical snobs.

The snobbery can run either way - a simple Blues player may dismiss Jazz Fusion as "all technique and no feeling." But he's wrong. Of course there's feeling in Jazz Fusion; it's just that he's not feeling it! The guys playing it are feeling it, otherwise they wouldn't be playing it, and the audience is feeling it, otherwise they wouldn't buy the tickets!

With others it stems from envy or offense at the unfairness of a musician who plays simple music achieving greater success. All the tens of thousands of hours put in to attain good technique does not guarantee acceptance &/or financial success. Life and the music business just ain't fair! Wah!

And with some, it's the acceptance (consciously or unconsciously) of the false premise, "complex equals good; simple equals bad."

When it comes to my own playing, I've learned to suspend all judgement. Am I any good? Who knows? Not me. I just do what I do, and that's that. I trust myself and keep playing. Enough people like it that I keep getting gigs and students, for which I am immensely grateful because I love to play the guitar, whether I'm any good or not, and getting paid for it is living the dream as far as I'm concerned.

I am capable of playing some pretty complex music but I play simple music as much or more so than complex music. I just love to play.

So how "good" is it?

Not my call.


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