Tuesday, March 11, 2008

E. L. Doctorow on Great Songs

Of great songs, standards, composers will tell you the basic principle of their composition: Keep it simple, the simpler, the better. You want untrained voices to handle it in the shower, in the kitchen. Try to keep the tune in one octave. Stick with the four basic chords and avoid tricky rhythms.

These composers may not know that this is the aesthetic of the church hymn. They may not know that hymns were the first hits. But they know that hymns and their realms of discourse ennoble or idealize life, express its pieties, and are in themselves totally proper and appropriate for all ears. And so most popular ballads are, in their characteristic romanticism, secularized hymns.

The principle of keeping it simple suggests only so many standards sound alike. One might even say a song cannot become a standard unless it is reminiscent of existing standards. Maybe this is why we feel a great song has the characteristic of seeming, on first hearing, always to have existed. In a sense it has. Just as we in our minds seem to have always existed regardless of the date of our birth, a standard suggests itself as having been around all along, God given, and waiting only for the proper historical movement in which to make itself available for our singing.

E L Doctorow, City of God (London: Abacus, 2001), 223-224.

Image: “Keep it simple, the simpler, the better.”