How to make great music without vocals

Whoever said great music needs vocals? Of course vocal songs are plentiful and popular, but singing isn’t necessary for good music. Vocalists (either singers or otherwise) don’t have a monopoly on listener’s ears.

Vocals are, however, particularly compelling – often more so than other instruments. This is primarily because our human hearing is specially-tuned to respond to the sounds of other humans. This is important to be aware of, but it shouldn’t stop you from composing music without vocals.

Making instrumental music just as interesting and exciting is certainly possible. You just need other ways of telling a story and keeping the listener’s attention. Without vocals, you just have to work a bit harder.

The first thing you need to get right is the structure of the music. A lot of vocal music follows common song form (verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus-bridge-chorus), but instrumental music doesn’t have a ‘default’ structure – you’ll have to come up with it yourself. This requires consideration of contour, proportion and coherence. Contour is the overall shape of the music – how the energy and the texture changes over time. Proportion is the relative lengths of each section. Coherence is the balance between musical material and the time you have to express it.

The other important factor to consider is development. This is how the musical material evolves and changes. If the musical material doesn’t develop, the listener quickly becomes familiar with it (and then gets bored). In order to maintain interest, the listener should be guided through a musical journey. This is similar to a good film, where the characters grow and become more 3D as we learn more about them, and as they themselves change in response to their situation. In this way, your musical material are like characters.

You’ll also need to make conscious decisions about focus. Most vocal music typically has a lead vocal part in the foreground – this is what is placed at the front of the mix, and what the listener focusses on. If your music doesn’t have vocals, you’ll need to think about what other musical element is going to be the focus for your listener. This is more than just choosing something and placing it in the foreground – it has to be a part that is interesting enough to maintain the listener’s attention. This might be a melody, but it can be anything – so long as it is interesting enough to attract and hold the listener’s attention. Obviously, clever development plays a big role here.

I’ve written in more detail about some of these considerations here:

https://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/what-makes-structure-work/

https://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/development-and-momentum/

-Kim.

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  1. Your blog is amazing. Thank you for creating it. It has helped out a lot more people than u think.

  2. Thanks Brandon!

    -Kim.

    • Dangerrat
    • October 11th, 2010

    Yes, one cannot say often enough how valuable this blog is. I’m amazed everytime how well thought out the posts are.
    Btw, can you name some example songs of instrumental music, that you maybe had in mind, when you wrote this, that illustrate these concepts particularly well?
    Thanks!

  3. Hi Dangerrat,

    Thanks – It’s always great to hear when people find some value in this blog!

    Regarding some examples of instrumental music, I didn’t have any specific examples in mind when I wrote this, but here are a few worth checking out:

    Ulrich Schnauss – Medusa
    Ok, technically, it’s got vocals in it, but I think the vocals are used more as a melodic texture. I, for one, can’t understand the lyrics…

    Venetian Snares – Második Galamb
    Listen to the intericate development of musical material. The second half is particularly interesting, with the way the drums and other instruments mimic each other playfully.

    Beethoven – 2nd Symphony, 1st Movement
    It’s long and it starts slow, but give it time. This is an amazing piece of music. Such a wide dramatic range, yet the whole piece maintains a high degree of coherency and the main themes give the piece its unique character.

    Trentemøller – Take Me Into Your Skin
    It’s basically one big long buildup, but listen closely and you can hear the main theme coming in and out of focus as the song weaves a deceptively twisted path to the climax.

    Rachmaninov – Prelude In C Sharp Minor, Op. 3/2
    Like the Beethoven, this too is an amazing piece of music. You can use it as a case study in taking a single musical idea and exploring its full expressive range. A wonderful composition.

    Tool – Triad
    A great non-electronic example of how rhythm and harmony can be used expressively to build a piece of music that relies on texture for its storytelling.

    -Kim.

    • Dangerrat
    • October 12th, 2010

    Great, I’ll check these out, thank you very much for the breakdown. Loving the Rachmaninov already, one can learn so much from these classical pieces.

    • 3ee
    • October 14th, 2010

    I always enjoy reading articles like this about structure/arrangement, makes me think about my stuff, upgrading where necessary. Thank You!
    Cheers! :)

  4. @Dangerrat
    Tastes vary, there are a lot of non-contemporary composers that are worth listening to. Personally, I enjoy Beethoven and Rachmaninov the best. If you enjoyed the pieces I suggested, there are some more I can point you to if you want.

    @3ee
    Glad to hear that it’s making you think about improving your own music. Structure (and more generally – composition) is particularly important, yet so often overlooked.

    -Kim.

    • Dangerrat
    • October 15th, 2010

    I’d love to hear more suggestions, I enjoyed the ones you already mentioned, though I must say they are no lightweight pieces by all means and a fair bit beyond my level, but at the same time perfect for broadening one’s horizon, which is what I’m looking for.
    Cheers!

  5. @Dangerrat
    You’re right – they’re certainly not lightweight pieces! But there’s a lot to learn from them.

    Other favourite Beethoven pieces are:
    Piano Sonata 21 (“Waldstein”), 1st movement
    Piano Sonata 14 (“Moonlight), 3rd movement
    5th Symphony, 1st movement

    Other favourite Rachmaninov: Piano concertos 2&3!

    Also check out Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s “Erlkonig”.

    -Kim.

    • Dangerrat
    • October 18th, 2010

    Nice. This should keep me off the street for a while. ;-)
    Thanks again.

  6. Try to enjoy them slowly – one at a time. That’ll give you the chance to digest each one and learn from it. If you try to take it on all at once, it’ll become a bit of a blur!

    -Kim.

  7. Good points, Kim!

  8. Thanks Petri!

    -Kim.

    • viagra
    • November 2nd, 2010

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