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It’s not that instrumental music isn’t being written and performed anymore, but you don’t hear a lot of it in the mainstream. Some artists have made their main bread & butter in the decades past playing instrumentals — Floyd Cramer comes to mind, but also many other soloists and bands (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass)– but these days it doesn’t usually rise to the top of any Billboard chart.
Certainly there was more of it in the early days of rock & roll. Those early hits (“Walk Don’t Run,” “Last Date,” “Telstar,” “Wipe Out,” etc.) were extremely popular. From the 80s onward, the instrumental sub-genre was the domain of the likes of David Sanborn, Kenny G, Vangelis, and others.
Early instrumental hits had a bit of a “novelty song” sound, but there are lots of examples, particularly from the progressive rock world of the 70s, where instrumentals were every bit as complex as a classical symphony, and sometimes more so.
Today’s Songwriters, and the Instrumental
In the songs that writers send to me for an objective listen these days, it seems that many are starting to dabble in the instrumental world once more. It could be that technology makes that easier now. But there is one common problem that I’ve noticed: the missing melody.
It’s as if there is a sense that an instrumental is a song without a lyric, which automatically equates to a song without a melody. I’m often asked to give my thoughts on an instrumental track where I sit waiting for the intro to end and the verse melody to begin. And it never does. Those songs wind up being a long, meandering chord progression, with almost no melody.
And that’s a problem. It’s rare to have a song without a strong melody. “Honky Tonk”, a big hit for the Bill Doggett Combo in 1956, and covered by The Beach Boys in 1963, was a hit with almost no melody. Its success can be attributed to the combo of strong groove and a strong lead solo.
But that’s an outlier. Most instrumentals will benefit from a strong melody. And in fact, the absence of a lyric makes a captivating, hooky melody practically a necessity. As with any song that you hope people will hum and remember and come back to, a good instrumental melody plays the lead role in grabbing listener attention.
Here is some advice for creating good instrumental music:
- Write an instrumental song the same way you’d write a song with lyrics. There’s no substantial difference in the structure of a song that’s sung compared to an instrumental.
- Consider the melody to be one of the most important components. Let the chords and instrumentation serve the melody.
- Instrumentals will not easily tolerate sloppy playing. Get your chops in order, and practice! It hopefully goes without saying that audiences will focus on the instruments. (Picture “Classical Gas” with a bad guitarist.)
- Keep an instrumental from getting too long. For whatever reason, songwriting students often make the mistake of letting an instrumental go on far too long.
- Don’t let the need for a mood preempt the need for a melody. Instrumentals often portray a strong sense of mood and colour. But that’s not usually enough to sustain a song.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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