Instrumental Music vs. Vocal Music

As I sat and listened to Gustavo Dudamel conduct the renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic in the beautiful Walt Disney Concert Hall, I couldn’t help but look around at the audience. There were a few young adults scattered around but no teenagers and no children. Why is it that attending symphony performances has become an “elderly” thing to do? I understand that these kinds of performances are expensive, but they usually offer student discounts, group rates, and other special offers – all you have to do is plan ahead. Why is it that our generation can pack out the Staples Center for a Taylor Swift concert but can’t manage the time to experience a distinguished conductor with arguably the best orchestra in the country?

Instrumental music used to be all that people listened to, young people included. The music that young people love today and listen to on repeat usually has lyrics attached to it. These lyrics tell a story about some aspect of life, most often romantic love, and they make it clear what the music is about. The main focus is on the lyrics; people listen to it so they can sing along. Obviously, you can’t sing along to instrumental music, and because of that, people often find it boring. However, if they really took the time to listen to it, they might find it more interesting than vocal music. Instrumental music requires us to imagine our own story for the song. The music gives us themes and emotions, but we have to fill in the rest. Sometimes, there is no story, but only a range of emotions the composer wants you to feel. You have to think and focus on the music that you’re listening to; you can’t just follow along with lyrics that you can sing without thinking about. Listening to instrumental music requires more effort, but it has a rewarding payoff that many people miss. Not only do doctors use it to help improve both physical and mental health, but it can also alleviate stress and anxiety. Maybe we wouldn’t be such a busy and stressed society if we listened to instrumental music more.

Everyone knows the names of Bach and Mozart and could probably recognize Beethoven’s famous fifth symphony, but who are the modern-day composers? The ones that compose film scores – Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, John Williams, Howard Shore, to name a few. Most people who do listen to instrumental music today listen to soundtracks. While these compositions are beautiful and creative, they are more similar to popular lyrical songs than other instrumental music. There is already an image and a story attached to these compositions – the one from the movie or television show. They don’t require any new imaginations, but rely on your knowledge of the film.

There’s something about allowing our mind to connect the dots in the music that we don’t want to do. We don’t want to imagine our own images and story for the music that is playing; we want it to be told to us. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with lyrical music or film scores; I definitely listen to them more than classical music. But I am saying that there’s a lack of a desire to listen to instrumental music. In this world where we idolize those who can sing, we don’t have enough respect for those who create, conduct, or perform purely instrumental music. Either people weren’t raised on it or they say it bores them and puts them to sleep. But instrumental music, if you’re really listening to it, makes you think and can expand your mind. It forces you to listen to it over and over again so that you can hear each theme and every new emotion and form a complete story or image of your own to match the music. It can calm your nerves and dissipate your stress.

You don’t have to give up vocal music to appreciate instrumental music. But the next time you’re sitting in traffic or needing to unwind a little, try listening to instrumental music. Instead of lulling you to sleep, it could help you focus better than vocal music does, if you let it. If you have a favorite film composer, listen to his music for a film that you haven’t seen and see if you appreciate it as much. I love popular vocal music as well as the next person, but I’ve made a conscious effort to listen to more instrumental music, and my appreciation for it has grown. Not only that, but I’ve found myself less stressed about life in general. My generation assumes that they can’t like instrumental music because it’s not fun or popular, but they are also always busy, expecting every new technology to make their lives easier when it only makes it more stress-filled. If they put the effort in to understand instrumental music, they would discover just the opposite of their expectations and might even be able to relax. Then maybe one day we could sell out a concert hall for a symphony performance and have it filled with people a variety of ages.

  • Musician

    I totally agree with you. The majority of people only like vocal pop music because they don’t have the sense of music, or talent in music. They truly believe that they love music but actually they are not. They actually only love their idol singer, their idol’s voice, their idol’s beauty, the way their idols dance along. they solely want entertainment, not music.
    TV and radio medias always want to deceive you that you love and know music, so that they have more listeners. But in fact, they know you are not. They know you don’t enjoy any instrumental music. Otherwise, why are there only singing contest shows be broadcasted in the TV? Why not they broadcast piano contest or violin contest? Because they know very less people like these. Because the medias know that their so-called ‘music lovers’ don’t enjoy these, and will bored them to sleep.

  • Meg Baker

    I appreciate this blog – it’s thought-provoking. It makes me reflect on expectations, entitlement, and entertainment. I think maybe 21st century young people expect, and feel they are entitled, to be entertained by music, not necessarily engaged in a heart, mind, and soul experience with music itself – sans the lyrics.