The Beat of Diablo — Listening beyond words
CONCORD, CA (Feb. 16, 2023) — For as long as I can remember, I’ve held an affinity for instrumental music and have always preferred it over music with vocals.
Growing up, I was exposed to very little music beyond whatever soft rock or Muzak I heard in my parent’s car. At the time, I was drawn to instrumental ballads like “Chariots of Fire” and “Love Theme from St. Elmo’s Fire” far more than popular songs of the time with vocals. Even when I was too young to recall, I’m told that while I wasn’t too keen on singing along to nursery rhymes, I’d certainly be quick to get up and dance in my diaper whenever I’d hear the piano intro to the cheesy rock instrumental “Music Box Dancer.”
Four decades later, I’ve developed an eclectic music palate that includes a deep appreciation for great lyrics and vocal work. That said, I still find myself listening to instrumental music more often than not. I sometimes wonder why that is.
Some musicians here in Concord who’ve released both vocal and instrumental music found that their wordless output seems to resonate more with their listeners.
“Our album from last year was the first I’ve ever put out that was strictly instrumental,” explains Glenn Grubbs of the instrumental synth rock duo the Call of Dusk, “and a lot of folks have told me it’s my best work.”
“If I were to go by what the numbers say – and this is not my normal approach – the listenership of my instrumental work is significantly higher,” observes Xavier Guerrero (a.k.a. Spirit Drive), deducing that “people probably connect with it more than my vocal music.”
The feedback Glenn and Xavier point to is anecdotal and by no means indicates that the average music consumer prefers instrumental music over songs with singing. Still, for those of us who do, what is the connection?
Making a connection
Timothy Garry (a.k.a. Timmy G), a local musician and music teacher, posits that it might be less about what we’re connecting with and more about how that connection is made:
“If done right, I feel that instrumental music can be even more evocative than music with lyrics. It’s a more primal way to reach people. Lyrics can sometimes tell the listener what they ‘should’ be feeling, whereas instrumental music can guide you to a certain feeling by creating a mood, whether it be excitement, awe, melancholy or what have you.”
A visceral connection can be made from the human response to dissonance and consonance found in melody and harmony, but is it strong enough to compete with another “primal” variable for our ear’s attention? Our instinctual response to the human voice is a tough competitor.
Alternate forms of expression
Outside of music, our efforts to understand each other as humans are often focused on spoken language, with all other forms of communicative expression (tone, body language, vibe) playing second fiddle. Removing that first line of communication forces us to rely on alternate forms of expression to understand one another.
When we take language away from music, we sometimes subconsciously strengthen our focus – both as musicians and listeners – to better evoke or interpret what’s being expressed.
“I think instrumental music should be more intriguing than music with vocals,” says Greg Fogg of local rock band My Evergreen Soul. “In general, music behind vocals needs to be simple. You wouldn’t want to listen to just the music that would (otherwise) be behind the vocals. It would probably be repetitive and maybe boring. That’s why it’s fun on a purely instrumental song to go wild and add all these extra changes and riffs into the song, because you don’t have to worry about it competing with the vocals.”
Putting aside all thoughts on human instinct, the subconscious mind and nuances of communicative expressions, I simply often enjoy listening to music without someone singing at me. It’s just that simple … and that complicated.
A Spotify playlist of local instrumental music can be found at TheBeatofDiablo.com.
Contact Dave Hughes at MrDaveHughes@gmail.com.
Dave Hughes is a local music advocate with an extensive network of independent artists. He produces and hosts a local music program on KVHS called The Beat of Diablo, every Sunday at 7:00 PM on 90.5 FM. Dave also catalogs local music releases at ConcordRockCity.com.