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The Instrumental

Wednesday, 10 October 2012



People overlook the instrumental.  Over and over, overlook it.  You think it is lesser, even unimportant.  When you encounter it on a CD, you think it is a few minutes to skip over, an afterthought, a lesser effort, a filler.

That's too bad, but I know why you do it.  You think that any instrumental, especially on a rock or pop CD, is something that the band or the artist couldn't quite finish.  They couldn't figure out what words to put with it; they couldn't settle on a melody, or couldn't find one in the first place. You think, to be British and crude, that it's a toss-off.

But, as person who writes a "song" or two from time to time, I am here to tell you that instrumentals exist because there are some pieces of music that exist better without words.  It isn't that a musician fails in his or her attempt to put words to it; it is that it doesn't need words.

I am thinking of:

Yes' "Mood For A Day"
Springsteen's "Paradise by the Sea (or C)"

Traffic's "Glad"
Carlene Carter's "First Kiss"
Steve Earle's "Dominick Street"
Phish's "The Inlaw Josey Wales"

Neil Young's "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill"
Jorma Kaukonen's "I'll Let You Know Before I Leave"
Led Zeppelin's "Bron-Y-Aur"
The Who's "Quadrophenia"
any number of Meat Puppet songs
Nickel Creek's "The Smoothie Song"


Steve Howe plays "Mood For A Day."

That's dozen (or so) off the top of my head.  Without even trying. And I don't really know the names of Meat Puppet songs.  But all of the above are songs that I look forward to when I listen to the CDs they appear on. Little songs that I love and cherish.  To me, the instrumental track or tracks on a CD are sometimes the best moments.

But see?  Even I am doing it.  By calling them "little songs," I am suggesting that they don't merit the same examination, the same evaluation, as the big songs on a CD.  I am wrong.  It's just that we so desperately want the words to mean something, want the words to give us direction, that we ignore the possibility that the instrumental could speak to us just as much.


We allow the musical interlude, the instrumental break, the endless solo, but only as part of a structure that contains words to surround that wordless expansion of a song.  Would the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" have a place today?  Would "Jessica"?

 The instrumental is a special piece, most of the time, a memorable melody carried not by words, but by some instrument, or several instruments.  It is a delicate piece, usually, something that might not even bear the weight of words.  It is not a song (usually) that someone couldn't be bothered to write words for.  The instrumental can change the pace of a CD, can show you a different side of a musician or band, can allow you to focus on the instruments, instead of the voices.  Meditative or awe-inspiring, the instrumental may end up as a backdrop, but it wasn't written that way.  It was first played as a show piece by someone extremely pleased with what he or she had just come up with.  Because it is not an accompaniment to a voice, it is probably more challenging, more intricate, more of a stretch for the player.

Heck, the great Bob Mould kicked off his entire solo career with the beautiful instrumental piece, "Sunspots." 

I may be working with an outdated paradigm.  If so, please give me a little leniency.  Think of, with me who can carry way too much history, surf music.  Think of movie soundtracks.  Think of "Classical Gas."  Even our most popular trends have been rife with songs that don't have words.  Even some that do have words have no meaning associated with those words.  But maybe no more.

All I would argue is, if you are a listerner, do not downplay the instrumental.  That it will be a gem, little or otherwise, has a high likelihood, and if it is something that you connect with early on, I promise that it will become one of your favorites on any given CD going forward.

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