Quotable: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Paul Dirac and Complexity


Good morning!

Quote of the day today has a decidedly musical flavour.

As those who know me can attest, I am arguably one of the most enthusiastic Queen fans around. One of the many, many things I love about Queen is their use of compositional complexity when the occasion calls for it. There is something wonderful in listening to the same piece of music now- in 2019- that I first heard in 1991- and yet noticing some little detail for the first time. Quality, as they say, is timeless.

Bohemian Rhapsody is famously complex as pop music goes- complex in orchestration, in its changing key signatures, myriad chords, various time signatures and rhythmns. I am not a guitarist, but whenever I see the guitar chords (above), it reminds me of that famous Lou Reed comment- "One chord is fine, two chords are pushing it, three chords and you're into jazz.". So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, Bohemian Rhapsody : an excellent piece of "jazz"...

      Of course, music doesn't have to be complex to be good. Sometimes the simplicity is a wonder in and of itself. If you ever play Ben E King's "Stand by Me", the left hand (forgive me, but I will always think like a pianist) is delightfully simple and charming all at once. You don't have to play it more than a few times (and I mean "play" as in "sight read") before your left hand finds the notes quite of its own accord- no heavy duty practice required.

"Stand By Me" by Ben E. King (above) is simple to play, yet great to hear; proving that sometimes "wonderfully simple" can be "simply wonderful". (Image: amended digital composite from photographs by N. Intrater and V Welch)

In classical music, of course, Pachelbel's Cannon is famous for  producing an effect that sounds much more complex than you might expect from its relatively simple chord and note sequences.

In science, too, some surprisingly complex phenomena can have an arrestingly beautiful underlying simplicity.

Along similar lines, Paul Dirac famously wrote-

"A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data. God is a mathematician of a very high order,
and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe."

— Paul A. M. Dirac In Scientific American (May 1963).
(As quoted and cited in The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Science (1998), page 468)

Anyway, there is a whole mass of stuff that could be said about complexity and simplicity and this is a theme this blog will certainly return to cover many times. For now, though, I'd like to leave you with the thoughts of one of history's greatest musical geniuses-

"To win applause, one must write stuff so simple that a coachman might sing it"
- W. A. Mozart (in a letter to his father, Leopold Mozart, 1782)

In all honestly, I think I largely disagree with Mozart on this point, no matter how much I adore and admire his genius.... What do you think?

[Next installment of quotes will follow next week]


  1. A fellow Queen fan! I knew there was a reason I liked reading you :)
    Wonder how the Mozart quote applies to Bohemian Rhaphsody? Maybe it just shows that coachmen will learn to sing along even to quite complex pieces if they're applause-worthy enough.

  2. Hi Carmen. Thanks for your comment. I like your analysis. I also think that Mozart was wrong in that quote. Perhaps audiences are more sophisticated now than they were then? I don't know, but I think in that instance he underestimated his audience.


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