Complexity below the surface

The other day I ran across a Rick Beato video entitled “The most complex pop song of all time.”

I thought the song would be something by a cerebral group like Rush, but instead it’s “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Sérgio Mendes. The song made it to #4 on the weekly pop charts in 1983 and came in at #16 for the year. I knew the song, but I would not have thought it was especially simple or complex.

The song works because the melody is simple enough but the harmony is complex. The complexity isn’t gratuitous, but serves the song. Millions of people thought the song was enjoyable, not impressive; you have to listen closely to be impressed.

I was reminded, as I often am, of the line from Feynman that nearly everything is really interesting if you look into it deeply enough. I wonder what other pop songs I’ve dismissed that have a lot going on if you listen more closely. And I wonder more generally what else around me is more interesting than I realize.

6 thoughts on “Complexity below the surface

  1. Sérgio Mendes comes from a Brazilian jazz tradition that has produced a lot of songs that are smooth and simple on the surface but have a lot going on underneath.

    Maybe the most extreme example of this is One Note Samba. As the title implies, the melody is trivial, but the song is not.

  2. To be fair to Rush, etc, this song has really complex chord changes. It’s not particularly melodically, lyrically, structurally, or rhythmically complex.

    But holy crap, that is a really out there set of chord changes!!! I didn’t recognize the name nor the artist, but I definitely remember this one from the radio back in the day. It never registered as more than a nice pop song — but then I never tried to play it!

    I was trying to think of other songs that were complex in different ways. One that jumped to mind was Kurt Elling’s vocalese on John Coltrane’s “Resolution” from A Love Supreme. It’s much more complicated melodically and lyrically than “Never Gonna Let You Go”, but the structure is simpler and the chords MUCH simpler. (That said, I don’t know that it is particularly more complex than other big vocalese songs by Elling or and/or Jon Hendricks.)

  3. Complexity is neither good nor bad by itself.(*) What matters is how it is managed. In music, this has to do with how complexity in particular parameters (rhythm, meter, harmony, motivic development) is balanced off against simplicity in others. Complexity in everything is merely baffling, and simplicity in everything is merely boring. The prevalence of the latter in popular music is reflected in the surprise and appreciation that are evoked by pretty much any complexity at all.

    (*) This is why statements that reduce to “this is too complex” or “simplify this” are discreditive; apart from the fact that “simplicity” does not mean the same thing to any two people.

  4. Robert Matthews

    I’m not a musician, but I’m a huge fan of Beato’s youtube videos, as they go into fascinating detail about (as one of his video series is called) “What makes this song great”. Sometimes it’s the simplicity, sometimes the complexity of the harmonies/syncopation/arrangement.

    What struck me about the “Never Going To Let You Go” video is that for all the complexity of the chord changes, I found the end-result totally meh. Beato’s account of his band’s attempts to play it at a gig, on the other hand, had me crying with laughter. Worth watching just for that.

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