Instrumental Music

02020-08-22 | Music | 3 comments

This is something I wrote circa 1993 – link. I believe it was published in Musician Magazin around that time.

Instrumental Music is to vocal song what a book is to the movie. Reading is active. When you read the book your imagination fleshes out the story. You imagine the scenery, you imagine the persons talking, imagine how they look and move. Movies are passive. When you go to a movie, you sit and watch. A better movie will move your mind, will challenge your perception, but your mind is not as active as it would be while reading a book.

In a song a hero or heroine will tell their story. They will tell U how they feel. They R the center of attention. The lyrics, the singing rule the listener. The listener is passive. Instrumental music works differently. The listener becomes the center of attention, rather than the singer. Instrumental music works on our intuitive mind whereas vocals/lyrics seem to push us into the intellectual mind. Instrumental music can be ignored easier than vocal music. In order to get the picture from instrumental music, the listener has to invest something, has to let the music resonate within him, has to flesh out the mood the music portrays, just as a reader has to fill the words with life. W/o that imagination a book is just words and the music is just notes.

Some of you will point out that a book has words too. Yeah, so it’s not a perfect analogy. However I am trying to compare the active process of reading with the passive process of watching. Secondly I admit there are lyricists who are more abstract and less literal than others, but even the most abstract lyrics pull us out of the music. Techno is mostly instrumental because lyrics get in the way of trance. The mere sound of language changes the way we listen.

Instrumental music works on several different levels: as background music to work by, to think by – or as foreground music when the listener tries to relive the artist’s emotions or intentions. There is an attention that songs demand, that makes them coarse. By that I mean that vocals always catch our attention. The voice of another human being happy or in distress. It doesn’t work very subtly – just as in a movie a lot of the subtleties of the book are lost. If the mind is a pool of water, instrumental music will sink + vocal music will float. Instrumental music will rain on the brain, can fall through the cracks. Non-verbal communication. It reaches the listener directly. Sub-consciousness to sub-consciousness. Like the Zen painter who creates his work in seconds on very thin paper – so thin that it might break under the weight of the brush if he hesitates or thinks for a moment. Ideally music works the same way, and every musician would probably agree with me that for us the biggest high is when a group of musos spontaneously performs something they have never played before. The mystical experience. My soul is my antenna, I am the instrument + the guitar is my amplifier.


  1. Nancy

    So true Ottmar! I find that when I see a movie after reading the book first I am nearly always disappointed. The movie never seems to be as good as the book. Maybe the actors they cast are not how I envisioned the characters or maybe they have changed the story slightly.

    For me instrumental music takes me to a place of peace where music with lyrics does not. Instrumental music often reminds me of beautiful places I have traveled or maybe because I listened to it on that journey it makes me remember my time in those wonderful places.

  2. JaneParhamKatz

    Dear Ottmar, I am moved to defend vocal song, given that we have a singer with a beautiful, expressive voice. Vocal music usually includes the instrumental music of the accompaniment, plus the magical resonance of the vocal sound. That such musical sound can emanate purely from the singer, without using an instrument outside his body, is a wonder and touches the listener in a very different place from instrumental music. Not much pop music is done by singers with such voices, so it becomes all about the lyrics. But listen to a real singer, and the whole perspective changes.

    I don’t concur with the comparison of instrumental music being a book, while vocal song is a movie. Vocal music whether a song, an opera aria, a choir, is about much more than lyrics. The listener has to use his imagination equally with vocal music as with instrumental. The words are important, but so much more is going on in vocal music beyond the words. The words are one with the music and a fascinating tapestry is created. Sometimes the music is saying the opposite of what the words are saying. Listening to vocal music is not passive, and in some cases takes more intellectual effort and emotional abandon than solely instrumental music demands. These are different things than reading a book v. seeing a movie. On that line, often a gifted movie director or actor can convey many things at once, and the viewer has to make an effort to realize what is going on, where a book has to go one thought at a time.

    Then there is the mystical use of the voice, as in chant, with no instruments involved. Hearing chant is one spiritual experience. Doing chant is an amazing exercise for connecting with inner being.

  3. Michelle Achee

    Hey Ottmar, Just reading this exchange of your thoughts and others comments about lyrical… instrumental…books vs movies and I totally think everyone is right! I so see what you are saying and yet I see and get, what another wrote. I love the song “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty, but to me…the lyrics are saying one thing but the music, to me, is saying something else. I see the sun…I see the beach, I feel the heat of the day and see blue sky and ocean. The lyrics are far far from that scene! I listen to alot of instumental music and love the way I get to interpret that too. My most recent find is a group called Four80East. We listen to your music…every day though and have for years. Hope you are well.


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