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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It’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:
- Song energy is more determined by how instruments are introduced, used, then dropped out than by harmonic or melodic shape.
- Instrumental changes are subtle. Instruments often “sneak into the mix” rather than being obvious.
- 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.
- 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.
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