Does it have to be difficult?

Several popular playlists have a piano solo which, if I had written it, I would have dismissed as too easy. It uses simple chord progressions and could probably be played with one hand. 

“But it’s good,” my husband said. He had listened to hours of these playlists while at work, and that track was only one of two he had saved as a favorite. 

Why does it succeed? Well, I’m reminded of a physical therapist who, when asked why she charged so much for only twenty minutes of therapy, replied, “I get paid to know when to stop.” I won’t defend that therapist, but it’s true that every composer needs to know what to leave out just as much as what to put in. 

As long a composition has no more and no less of what it needs, it doesn’t matter if it’s difficult. For some purposes, such as mellow background music, it probably shouldn’t be difficult. Virtuosity would get in the way. 

Laurence Perrine offers some relevant words in his classic textbook on literature: "In judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? … Question 2 measures the poem on a scale of perfection. Question 3 measures it on a scale of significance… If the poem measures well on the first of these scales, we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales, we call it a great poem."

So when I find myself judging one of my own compositions by how hard it is, I should ask myself, am I really serving purpose of the music - or am I serving my ego? 

Not that the difficulty of a piece is meaningless. The most amazing secrets of the earth require hard work to extract. That’s why an engagement ring has a diamond instead of a pretty pebble. Just as serving the composition might require simplicity, it might require enormous skill. The discovery and refinement of anything really special usually does. 

Then again, sometimes great skill leads the composer to keep things simple - or, at least, accessible. Johann Sebastian Bach was, inarguably, one of the greatest composers. But the second most popular track on his Spotify page is a little piece that can be found in my piano student’s fourth level method book.


In judging any work of art, we need to ask three basic questions: (1) What is its central purpose? (2) How fully has this purpose been accomplished? (3) How important is this purpose? … Question 2 measures the poem on a scale of perfection. Question 3 measures it on a scale of significance… If the poem measures well on the first of these scales, we call it a good poem, at least of its kind. If it measures well on both scales, we call it a great poem.

Laurence Perrine

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