“Complexity equals simplicity”
In this tip, Pyramind’s Chief Academic Officer Matt Donner runs us through the songwriting & arranging techniques used in Disclosure’s hit, “Latch”.
Before digging in, he wants you to keep this concept in mind – complexity equals simplicity. He notes that a lot of his students struggle with song arrangement. Sometimes great theory, mixing, and sound design don’t cut it. A song needs strong arrangement to really carry over the length of time it’s played.
Sometimes, complicated sounding extended chords can make a simple arrangement sound more interesting. Matt dissects the chords Disclosure uses, as well as the scale of the vocal melody. We have included helpful visuals of the chord names so that you can build these chords yourself.
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Hey, everyone. Matt Donner here from Pyramind, chief academic officer, and today we are going to dig into a concept somewhere between the production and the arrangement. Gonna’ do something of a breakdown from this Disclosure track, “Latch”. Pretty popular, only 252 million plays on Spotify. Clearly, people are liking this song. There’s a number of reasons why this song works and works really well. Obviously, the production is super, super tight. Sam’s vocals are immaculate and he has a ridiculous falsetto, but there’s a couple other things that are going on here underneath that I … I hear, across, a lot of music in various electronic forms, and it boils down to a couple of concepts, all at once, we’re going to dig into today.
One of the concepts is that complexity equals simplicity. I’ll explain what that means in a minute. Might not make sense yet. Complexity is or yields or gets you simplicity. The second is that vocals in major always work. The third is something called relative modality. Those all sound very complicated. They’re actually not. Well, one concept, maybe a little bit in the concept of modality. If you’re a theory person, this will be very clear to you. If you’re not a theory person, this is a great opportunity to say to yourself, “Maybe I should take some theory lessons.”
It’s a good idea. That’s really the foundation of what’s going on in this track, and I’m going to break it down as simply as possible and then slowly build it up to the complexity that the cords have in the song, and then use that as a foundation to explain the modality, the relative modality and then what’s going on in the vocals at the same time. At the same time, we really kind of need to zoom out, back up and look at this from the arrangement perspective first. One of the most common comments I get from students who are just starting out is not so much about the piano.
The piano’s complex and theory is complex … At least can be, but it’s learnable. It’s just A, then B, then C, then D and there’s a relationship and over time you get that and it becomes very natural. The hardest thing for people, really, is arranging. A lot of people think they need the mix, but really the mix should be a function of the arrangement. A lot of people think they need the sound design, and you definitely need the sound design. A lot of people think they need the theory and then they get those three first and then they say, “Why don’t my songs work? I got the sound design, I got the theory, I got the production, I got the mixing. Everything sounds great, but for some reason my songs aren’t carrying over the length of the time.”
That’s usually an indication that you have something of an arrangement challenge. This particular song teaches us something, and besides being an excellent song, it teaches us that complexity gets you simplicity. That speaks to the arrangement. This is basically one song structure repeated for 4 minutes and 15 seconds. I’m sure various remixes go longer, but it’s basically one 4-cord concept that, when I play it simply, won’t sound very exciting, but when I play it in its most complex form, is pretty interesting and pretty compelling. It’s so compelling that Disclosure can copy it and paste it and repeat it throughout the song and just work the arrangement around this very complex structure, making the arrangement simple.
I build it, I copy it, I paste it, I work it, I’m done. That’s the idea. Complexity gets you simplicity. Make some comments on the video if you guys like this concept and want to hear a couple other songs that do this complex/simple approach. Be happy to dig into ’em. Two that come to mind are “Sleepless Without You” by Cazzette, and Zedd’s “Spectrum”, two songs that also do a similar thing where there’s a complex structure underneath copied and pasted throughout the whole song. Song works because there’s enough there, so let’s dig in. For those of you who don’t know the song, go look it up. There are only 252 million of you have played this song, so surely you’re among them.
The basic structure is sort of A, B, C, D. It does an intro, it does a verse, it does a breakdown, it does a drop and then it repeats. Here, in Logic, I have that looking a bit like this. This is kind of the four sections. You’ve got the intro and then you’ve got the verse, puts you out to here, and then you’ve got this build up which has kind of two parts to it, and then you’ve got the drop which I’m calling “super falsetto”, ’cause Sam’s falsetto is super. That’s the song, and then they basically copy this, paste it, fade up, fade down, and that’s your arrangement. Very simple. It’s an A, B, C, D arrangement repeated, and it works because the cord structure’s really complex, so that’s complexity gets you simplicity. Now let’s dig into the cords, shall we? I built up something of a little mock-up here just so that you can hear the cords isolated.
I don’t have access to the tracks, so I did some internet scouring, found a couple versions of this song. About eight of them were just dead wrong and my friend, Andrew, here at Pyramind, found a great one for me. It was pretty much accurate, so I’m running off of that one. The idea here is that this song is in the key of B flat minor. There are versions that have it in G, that have it in A, that have it in A sharp and A flat. To my ear and based on what I’m listening on Spotify, it’s B flat and … It’s B flat, just … You can trust me on that one, I hope.
Guys, a disclosure if you’re watching this and I’m wrong, please let me know and explain to me how it sounds like B flat. In any case, B flat minor. Specifically, B flat Dorian. It’s a particular type of mode, which means there are seven cords that don’t do the same kind of cord thing as major. Just for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it B flat minor. It’s in B flat minor, B flat Dorian to be specific, which means your first cord, the 1 cord, is B flat minor. The second cord is the 5 cord, F minor. The third cord is the quality 4 major, which is one of the things that makes it Dorian. You have 1, 2, 3, 4, E flat major and then D flat major, so B flat minor, F minor, E flat major, D flat major.
That’d be great because it’s easy to play, but that’s not terribly exciting. That’s not complexity, that’s simplicity. When you do basic cord structures like this and you copy and paste that out, your song doesn’t stand up ’cause there’s not enough complexity in the actual structure. What these guys have done is they’ve done two things. One is they’re using extended cords. Two is they’re really messing with the bass. The bass is playing notes that are really unexpected and make it really complex really quickly. Here’s what logic shows. I’m going to play this and you can hear the cords banging back and forth, and then I’ll play them, deconstruct them here.
Here’s what we got so far. Now that’s way more complicated than just this, this, this and this. It took a while to kind of wrap my head around it. One of the first things that’s happening is the extended cords. An extended cord is when you take a triad, which are three notes, usually the 1, the 3 and the 5 of a scale. That’s, in this case, B flat minor. You make it a seventh, so you add another third. In this case, you’re going to get A flat. They add yet another extended note, which is known as the ninth, so you’ve got a 1 flat 3, 5, flat 7 and 9. That’s the first cord. B flat, minor 7, add 9, which is a grey cord, and as far as extended cords go, not that complicated.
Second cord, little more complicated. F minor, F minor 7, but they go one step further and they add a flat 6, or flat 13 depending on how you want to talk about it. That’s a thick, rich cord, so you had B flat minor 7, add 9, to F minor 7, third repeated with a flat 13. Sure enough, Logic’s saying the same thing, which is always nice, then you have E flat major, but E flat major 7, which is normally … We have this high D. They take the high D and invert it, put it down low so it’s here. The value of inverting this seventh is that you get these two notes together, which rub a little bit and that tension puts something extra in the cord.
We have E flat major 7, but this is where they get freaky and they take the bass, which would normally be E flat, and instead they’re playing the major third in the bass down here. They’re probably duplicating it. The next cord is the flat 3 of the scale, D flat major 7, done the same thing so we have … You can see how E flat major 7 inverted and D flat major 7 inverted are kind of the same fingers. I can lock my fingers in place and pick it up, move it over and get the same cord. It’s kind of fun. It’s a nice way to build up this muscle. When they do this D flat major 7 cord, I have this G flat in the bass, which is a really bizarre choice because G flat is a fourth. In this case, the cord would be 1, 3, 5, 1, 2, 3, 4. 4s or 11s. In this case, it’s in D flat major 7 and 11 in the bass.
That’s not what Logic calls it, which is fine. Logic doesn’t have the context of what I’m doing. It’s calling it, “F sharp major 7 sharp 11 [inaudible 00:11:23] 2,” which is way more complicated than it has to be. 4 cords, simply a 1, a 5, a 4 major, a flat 3 major. That makes it Dorian, and then again they add these layers of complexity to the cords until you get … That’s a lot for the ear to digest. To be fair, this is not basic theory. This is somewhat middle-advanced theory. If all of what I just said to you was like “whoosh”, don’t worry about it.
If you’re kind of a piano player person or you’ve gone through some of the theory courses, maybe even some of ours, you probably understand what extended cords are. You probably understand what ninths, elevenths, 13s, sharp 11s and those sorts of things. Again, the trick here is on the second two cords, how they’re messing with the bass, putting the bass notes as really strange places. That’s complexity. That’s modal, extended cords, creating a complex 4-cord structure. The song does that throughout, or at least that’s the foundation of the song throughout. We have complexity gets you simplicity.
I’ve described the complexity. Modality. The trick here is that the vocals are in relative modality, which means, if I’m in the key of B flat Dorian, the relative major here is A flat major. Those notes are shared between B flat Dorian, which I can play in the left hand here, and then on the right hand, they’re all the same notes from the same family. The trick is that Sam’s vocal … See if I can move to this piano, it might be a little easier to hear. His vocal is hovering around A flat, so he’s really playing … Move down an octave. All right. That’s his melody, and it should sound major. You’ll know it because it sounds a little bit like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.
If you just play with those notes a little bit, you’ll end up with things like … Which should sound familiar, or (hums) right in the verse. Think it’s at 16 seconds, let me get there and I’ll play along with. You have to do a slide, or else it’s not cool. I’m literally playing A flat major, just basic main notes of like an A major pentatonic scale, so you can have a lot of fun with the scale. The trick is, again, he’s in A flat major, the song is in B flat minor, and that’s the relationship. I hear more and more vocal-driven, I guess you’d call it pop and electronic music.
Vocal-driven electronic music. Melodic, vocal-driven electronic music where the vocals are in a major and the cords are in some relative minor. In this case, Dorian, whole step lower, major, and that Dorian-major relationship is found in Seven Lions’ “Strangers”. Does the same thing. It’s E flat major and F sharp Dorian. If you want, let me know, I’ll dissect that song, too. It’s a good one, it’s a great one, a lot of fun, but it’s the same thing where you have a complex structure copied and pasted throughout pretty much the whole song. That there is how Disclosure works. How “Latch” from Disclosure works. Complex cord structures, only 4 cords, but complex, copied and pasted, repeated throughout the song.
The complexity carries the song. Vocals in relative major, relative modality. Complexity gets you simplicity. That’s how it works. I’m Matt, we’re from Pyramind. Hope you enjoyed it. If you’re lost, have questions, comments, by all means, send me an email. Just firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to answer questions. People send me tracks from all over the world, ask me, “How does this track work? Why does it do this? Why does it do that?” Send ’em in, unless it’s just out of control. When you get into sort of the Animals as Leaders territory, takes a while to figure that stuff out. In this territory, send ’em over, have some fun. Enjoy this track if you’re not one of the 252 million people that have played this song. Signing off, hope you enjoyed. Take care.