Instrumental vs. Vocal Music

Listening to music is an emotional experience.  Music makes us feel something, but at the same time, you can’t feel anything if you didn’t have that feeling to begin with.  So it takes two — the musicmakers infuse their music with emotions they bring, but the receiving end also has to bring the matching or related emotions to be triggered by the music.

Music has the ability to bring out feelings that you weren’t even aware that you had, and it can do so without any words.  A simple drum beat or lone melody is enough to change your mood and make you feel.  And sometimes it’s all the more powerful because of the absence of words.  Can you imagine Pachelbel Canon or Beethoven’s 5th with lyrics?  I am certainly happy that sleepmakeswaves is an instrumental band, for instance.  Their album Love of Cartography is so magnificent, it achieves something you really can’t with words and vocal melodies.

Listening to instrumental music is a bit like feeling raw emotions without using words to describe it or telling stories why you feel that way.  It’s just pure emotion.  There are times when we need that.  Words are left-brain creation and they can get in the way of reaching straight to your heart.

On the other hand, words and vocal melodies introduce powerful additional layer in the landscape.  Its power can be used to achieve something different that music alone can’t quite create, but it can also create distraction by muddying up the water.

One of my pet peeves is songs with throwaway words.  The lyrics don’t really have anything to do with the feelings contained in the music so you end up discarding the meaning of words.  Rock n roll is filled with songs where words are just something to mouth while singing and nothing more.

But when words and music are put together cohesively, songs create more concrete and specific experience that instrumental music has a hard time to.   What you may get may be a story, a context, or even nonsensical string of words that nonetheless give you a particular feeling.  The specificity of words make the song less universal than pure emotions, but when it hits you it can hit deep.  Instrumental music can give you chills but it’s harder to make you burst out laughing or weep in sorrow.  Music gives more general feelings but words can really drive it home.

As a songwriter I am fascinated by this alchemy of music and lyrics.  Human voice and the sounds produced by it are potent ingredients, and that’s before we even consider the meaning of words.  My songs usually start with the music, most often a guitar riff.  I just sit and feel out the mood of the music and then consider words that can work with that.  What I’m after is the experience of emotional connection, the realization that this song knows what I’m going through.  That’s what I get from my favorite songs by other artists.   I can write instrumental music and in fact my recent songs have long instrumental sections.  But I’m more interested to see if I can create that penetrating experience of music and words driving a feeling home.

What are your thoughts on instrumental vs. vocal music?  Do you find yourself gravitating toward one or the other?  Both are great, of course, but they are different.  Knowing the difference helps you choose the right music for the right occasion.


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