I got this questions a while ago and thought it might be of interest to others as well. Some people study Beatles songs, because they view them as „better“ due to more complex song forms or harmony; others feel that modern jazz tunes are the ultimate boon in harmonic complexity and artistic songwriting quality. Well, here are my thoughts on the topic of „complex theory“…

What band would I consider to use really complex theory? That’s a tricky question, because “complex theory” is not an end in itself. In fact, people who are well versed in all areas of music theory run the risk of destroying a good song by making it too complex. It’s like a good cook: he might have gone through a phase where he learned about all the spices and used dozens of them in each dish; but after some time, his best dishes will only include a little bit of one or two spices. I think, the most complex music theory is found in the songs that sound the simplest! Maybe a spice thrown in here or there, but all in all rather plain.

You should listen to songs you like. If you like stuff that constantly surprises you by disappointing harmonic and rhythmic expectations, go for it. If you like stuff that looks simple at first, go for that. If you want to explore the possibilites of more complex music theory, I would listen to jazz music from the 1950s onwards or to some classical music from the late 19th and 20th century. Many musicians find this interesting to listen to, although many non-musicians regard it as “too spicy”. Be aware that in the timespan of classical music I mentioned, you will also see a great counter movement from the overly complex harmonies of the late romantic era to the very “simplistic” music of the impressionists — very interesting in terms of what “complex music theory” can and cannot do :).

As for the Beatles: They have interesting harmonies and rhythms in several songs, but I would not consider them a great study object for complex music theory. Many things that happen in their songs are neither following nor deliberately breaking the rules — so you won’t be able to learn the rules. Beatles songs always sounded more like they come from the spur of the moment (or the drugs ;)) to me and thus could be almost seen as impressionist works of art (check out how impressionists approached music!).

Also listen to old and current R&B music. This genre of music has interesting harmonic tricks sprinkled all over it.

I hope this can give you a few starting points for your journey into more “complex” music theory. For a fun way to learn more about music theory, check out my YouTube channel. I try to take a very practical approach to the dry topic of music theory and give examples in contemporary songs…

Matthias Orgler

I play music on stages and in studios :). My passion is to help other musicians wherever I can. With www.gixtra.com I want to make gigging easier and with my "Real World Music Theory" series I want to make music theory fun to learn.

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