An Exploration into the Popularity of Instrumental Music

The story of instrumental music, i.e. music with a deliberate absence of lyrics and vocals, is indeed an interesting one. Despite the fact that it has become more and more popular in the mainstream metal scene, and the types of subgenre associated with instrumental music expanding exponentially (with some bands going so far as to designate themselves as “ambient progressive instrumental post-metalcore”, etc.), the popularity of instrumental music has constantly been in a state of perpetual ebb and flow since its conception, which spans back to millennia ago.

However, the nascent concept of instrumental music was undoubtedly reaching its zenith during the golden age of the Renaissance, spanning from the culmination of the medieval period at the end of the fourteenth century to the blossoming of the Baroque style in the sixteenth, famed for its complexity and often contrived nature. Even though choral music was popular, with composers employing choirs and choruses, many preferred the instruments themselves to do the talking, through beautifully composed passages, soothing harmonies and crushing crescendos. Of course, a musical style of this gravity could not have come about without the pioneers and forerunners of the classical period, which was brought about by the Renaissance itself and its sole purpose to reinvent how man views the Universe and all worldly art. Famous names include Beethoven, celebrated for his soaring symphonies and dark, ambient concertos and string quartets, as well as Johann Sebastian Bach, famed for the implementation of uplifting, piano-central pieces, or Mozart and his Requiem. But if we move forward around two hundred and fifty years, we can observe how instrumental music has retained its immense popularity in contemporary culture, particularly in the metal/progressive society.

With the popularity of progressive rock becoming ever more prominent thanks to bands such as Pink Floyd, Opeth, Dream Theater championing the importance of musical integrity within the scene, it’s not surprising that instrumental music within the metal scene has taken off recently. Bands such as Houston, TX’s Scale the Summit and Washington-based three piece Animals as Leaders have enraptured the metal community in recent years due to their distinct style of instrumental music. The reason for this is actually significantly more complex than one might think, and a lot of fans’ appreciation for this style of convoluted, complex yet impossibly appealing style (I’m avoiding the use of the word genre as instrumental music encompasses rock, pop, metal, ambience at more) is due to the fact that they’re musicians themselves. As a guy who’s been playing guitar for over nine years I can say that it honestly does make a significant difference listening to a band whose musical composition and skill with their instruments; the same goes for watching them and being dazzled by their skill; although you should always avoid being a ‘fret-watcher’, i.e. standing at the front row being thoroughly unnerving for the guitarist in question due to the fact that you’re meticulously watching his guitar work and making sure he plays all the right notes.

But the songs themselves tell stories. And this applies to not just instrumental metal bands, but also ones with their roots more involved in progressive and alternative rock; one band that immediately fits this description is Scottish five-piece Mogwai, who have been intricately crafting (even though some of their back catalogue is a raucous confusion of heavy riffs and energetic drumming) instrumental (although a handful of their extensive repertoire does feature small vocal passages) music for over twenty years, a particularly special band due to their longevity coupled with the accessibility of their music. Although I personally view their 2011 release Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will as the most perfect, all-round example of the aural magnificence that the genre of post-rock has to offer, a genre famed for its use of instrumental sounds, and certainly Mogwai’s best album, perhaps the best encapsulation of the majesty of instrumental music can be found on their preceding album, 2008’s The Hawk is Howling. The track The Sun Smells Too Loud tells a subjective story for the listener to explore for seven straight minutes, combining clean guitars, keyboards, synths, drums and bass to create a relaxed, yet emotive soundscape. It’s interesting to compare it to lyricized music as although the narrative style of a vocalist’s lyrics do indeed tell a story, the listener is almost forced to explore that one and that one alone, wherein instrumental music, the possibilities of interpretation are endless, as it is not a single person regaling us with fictional tales, it is the instruments themselves that craft whatever narrative the listener chooses to interpret. Either that, or the riffs, solos, harmonies and symphonies are just that mind-blowingly stunning that any lyrics present at the same time would more likely just complicate things rather than hinder them.

Of course, it’s not to say that music with vocals doesn’t hold the same artistic integrity as instrumental music, the latter just seems to offer a little something extra to explore. The importance of instrumental music cannot be repeated enough, as it is truly a contemporary rendering of the freedom of artistic expression, inviting the audience or listener to travel with the music, rather than just sitting back and listening to what it has to say.