Clever Instrumentation Can Really Class Up a Song

Bon Iver’s Grammy-nominated “Holocene” shows that a sparse guitar-based instrumentation can be enough to generate a captivating sound.

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Justin Vernon - Bon IverIt’s easy to overlook the value of instrumentation to the success of a song, and think of it not so much as a songwriting issue as a production issue. But in that final step, the step where your song is at last presented to the audience, what you do regarding instrumentation can mean all the difference between success and failure. And I am very much a fan of thinking about instrumentation issues as a song is being written, not leaving it as a final thought. Instrumentation can really class up a song, and can be a part of the songwriting process.

Bon Iver’s Grammy-nominated song “Holocene” from their self-titled second album, is a great example of creating moving, captivating ideas with a limited instrumentation. For those still as yet unfamiliar, Justin Vernon is the songwriting genius and odd falsetto voice that forms the backbone of Bon Iver. (Read this Billboard article for a good background.)

The instrumental accompaniment for “Holocene” includes acoustic and electric guitars, vibraphone and keyboard, with light percussion (handclaps, snare drum, etc.). The brilliance is in the way the instruments are used; “Holocene” is crafted with the same care and precision we expect from classically-trained composers.

Here’s a chart that shows the song’s use of instrumentation:

  • INTRO: Acoustic/electric guitars, vibes
  • VERSE 1: Acoustic guitars
  • CHORUS 1: Acoustic guitars, bass, vibes, keyboard, light percussion (hand claps)
  • VERSE 2: As above, adding snare drum
  • CHORUS 2: Acoustic guitars, bass, vibes, keyboard, snare drum
  • VERSE 3: Light keyboard, keyboard effects, acoustic guitar
  • CHORUS 3: Acoustic guitars, bass, vibes, keyboard, snare drum

It’s worth listening to the song several times to really get a handle on how these instruments are used. Here are several observations that should jump out at you right away:

  1. Song energy is more determined by how instruments are introduced, used, then dropped out than by harmonic or melodic shape.
  2. Instrumental changes are subtle. Instruments often “sneak into the mix” rather than being obvious.
  3. Chorus instrumentations are (typically) fuller than verse, but they are eased into the mix over two bars so that chorus instrumentations are not realized until the 3rd bar.
  4. Dynamic (i.e. loudness) levels are largely determined by instrumental choices. Instruments all tend to play softly, but instruments are added in the chorus to simulate an increase in dynamics. This creates very subtle dynamic shapes that complement the performance style.
There can be a tendency among singer-songwriters to think that with only a guitar or two, instrumental choices are limited to the point where it’s not worth really thinking hard about that aspect of your song. But don’t let the sparseness of instrumentation make you think that way!Even with one guitar, you’ve got options for presenting different ways of playing (finger-picking (both near the bridge and over the fingerboard), strumming, harmonics, etc.As you get ready to record, take this bit of advice: draw out a chart that shows the form of your song, and try creating instrumental ideas that can help listeners hear the difference between verse and chorus instrumentations. That kind of clever approach to instrumentation can really class up a song.

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Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Holocene: How Bon Iver Creates A Mood - We Vloggers

  2. Great article! I agree with most of what you had to say about dynamics, instrumentation (and use of those instruments!), I greatly respect and admire Justin Vernon as an artist. However, your analysis of this song is far from complete. In this particular Bon Iver album, (and more specifically the song being discussed, “Holocene”) the use of instrumentation isn’t limited to a few guitars, keyboard effects, bass and drums. Though I don’t disagree with the fact that there are keyboard effects in this track, most of what you hear (all that ambient stuff) are actually trumpets, french horn, tenor sax, bass sax, and other brass instruments. This particular Bon Iver album took a different direction than their previous works by bringing on other notably professional musicians (Colin Stetson and Greg Leisz) and implementing more orchestral instruments (brass and wind). Even in their live shows they have a couple trumpets, violinists and other added instruments. What a great song, album and band! Such artistry in the lyricism and orchestration! Again, kudos on the great article, but I was a bit saddened to see this piece not analyzed to it’s true worth.

    • Hi Steven:

      Thanks for taking the time to write, and very glad you pointed out the specifics of that wonderful track. In my meagre defence, it wasn’t really so much an analysis of Holocene as it was an article encouraging songwriters to spend a bit of time giving more thought to the instrumental element of their music. And because I limit these posts to 600 words or less (able to be read in 5 minutes or less), even posts I write that are analyses of good songs are necessarily shorter on details than they deserve. Vernon’s music (and I think you’d agree with this) probably deserves an entire blog to properly dissect it.

      Thanks again, Steven.
      -Gary

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