Thoughts on Instrumental Music   

Jerry Lucky Commentary August 2018

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2018 All Rights Reserved


Letís talk about instrumental music for a bit. With over 120 monthly commentaries written over the past few years, Iím sure that Iíve touched on this subject a time or two in the past, but having just watched the movie Amadeus again for the fourth or fifth time and having spent some time listening to the latest instrumental album from the Italian duo Armonite I had a few thoughts come bubbling to the surface that I wanted to share with you.


In the world of Progressive Rock there has always been a bit of debate about which was better Ė to have songs with lyrics or just instrumental songs. And there were individuals arguing quite vociferously for one side or the other. Part of this ďdebateĒ I think comes from the very fact that in most Prog songs there is plenty of time to include long instrumental sections so that even if there are lyrics they tend to take up less actual performance time than the instrumental portion and therefore lyrics have tended to be seen by some as less important to the genre. I suppose this is a point that can be debated but personally I like a bit of both.


So that brings me to instrumental albums, be they solo guitarists or keyboardists or simply instrumental bands. You know those albums that are completely and intentionally instrumental. There is no question that instrumental music has been a big part of the Prog genre. Iíve often felt this was due in part because of the core musical influences on prog being Classical and Jazz, both of which excel in instrumental music. But also because the Progressive Rock genre is more of an instrument virtuoso type of music and instrumental albums tend to allow these folks the opportunity to play lots of notes.


Here are a few things to think about as it relates to the influences that might account for Prog instrumental albums. One, Classical music has always been an instrumental genre. Whether itís a Sonata or a Symphony itís all about arranging the instruments to perform the music apart from any vocals. In fact if vocals are added into the mix we typically call that an Opera. So even though in some circumstances ďvoicesĒ or ďvocalizationsĒ may be incorporated it is for the most part all about the music.  And Two, without getting lost in the weeds on this point in general terms Classical music doesnít typically use a name to identify a piece. It might be called the 15th Symphony or a Minuet in G or some such title but more often than not, unless the music was an arrangement of a shorter tune or hymn that already had a name, no name was or is required. It was only in later years that certain classical compositions were given names. Which brings us to Jazz which again is often, although far from exclusively, instrumental. Like Classical, perhaps even more so, the emphasis is on the performance. Once again the music is intended to speak for itself. Unlike classical music however, jazz tunes do tend to come with names. There are many that we are familiar with: Take Five, In the Mood, Round Midnight, Take the A Train and last but certainly far from least, Rhapsody in Blue. The list goes on and on.


So this where I started to wonder: What is going through the head of a musical composer when it comes to creating instrumental music. Does the artist create the music and then attach a name to the music or do they go into the studio with an idea, theme or name and then make music to flesh it out? I ask this question because as I was listening to the new Armonite CD itís an album of fourteen songs all between three and four minutes and virtually all of them instrumental. And I wondered the question aboveÖdid they have a bunch of titles that they wanted to attach to songs or once the song was composed did it spark a title. I donít know, but I guessing it could go either way.


But hereís the rub, and for the most part this rub applies to many of the instrumental albums Iíve listened to. If I use the Armonite CD as an example, if I didnít know or pay attention to any of the fourteen song titles, then essentially Iím listening to about fifty minutes of music that sounded like 14 passages of music with a host of great musical ideas all randomly chopped up into three and a half minute bits. I wondered why did they do that? Each tune follows a similar pattern: they start, they do a bunch of stuff and then they end it, sometimes with a fade and sometimes with a cold ending. There doesnít seem to be any reason for creating the music of the first song and calling it a name when the whole of the second or third song could just as easily have been joined together to make one long song with one song title. There seemed to be absolutely no significance to giving a name to each of these three and half minute pieces of music when they sounded so similar. There was precious little musically that differentiated one piece of music from another. Nothing significant or sonically descriptive about any of the tunes was evident that might have helped reinforce the name given. To my ears it was all quite inter-changeable. And this is to my ears the real challenge with albums in the pop or Prog genre that are all instrumental they can often become just a series of notes performed to varying degrees of proficiency.


If there are no lyrics to identify the ideas the song is trying express, what is the point of giving each piece a name? You may as well have just called them Tune 1 and so on. And why cut if off at three and a half minutes? Was it just to make an album of fourteen tracks? Because thatís what it seems like to me. Between you and meÖI would have been way more impressed with this album had it been one long composition that ebbs and flows, that starts and stops, that incorporates musical change-ups etc rather than an album of fourteen, seemingly incomplete musical ideas.


Now, all of this takes a completely different slant in your typical epic length Progressive Rock tune with lyrics. When the long instrumental sections are performed as part of a song with lyrics, they are there typically to continue conveying the emotions laid out by the lyrics. So even if the lyric are few-and-far-between, those words help the listener understand what the song is supposed to be about or tell us where the story is going and those words lead the listener into an emotional experience that the instrumental portion can then perpetuates. Itís the synergy of both, lyrics and music working hand in hand that offers up the best musical experience. At least as far as the Progressive Rock genre is concerned.


Thatís what I think anywayÖWhat do you think?


 Jerry Lucky