Not all that long ago it seemed that there was a place in the mainstream for instrumental music — the Shadows, Mike Oldfield and Tangerine Dream spring to mind — but now it seems as though it’s overlooked, more often than not going undiscovered by the majority of potential listeners. It is certainly under-represented on the radio and difficult to stumble across online unless you already know what you are looking for. This concerns me on a practical level, as my own music is mainly instrumental — which brings up the thorny question of genre.
Most new, non-media-related instrumental music seems to get pigeon-holed into World, New Age, Ambient or Chillout slots, yet what do you do if you don’t feel your music sits comfortably in any one of these categories? Each of the above has its own stereotypes — nose flutes of the Andes, harmless but often uninspiring ‘crystal and lentil’ shop New Age, abstract ambient textures with little or nothing in the way of melody and Chillout with its use of traditional synths and contemporary drum loops. You get the odd name like William Orbit or Brian Eno who manage to poke their head above the parapet, but the majority remain invisible. I often joke that my compositions are ‘music to soak lentils by’, but I try to make them more than that while still retaining a sense of mystery combined with a relaxed mood. I’ll combine elements of acoustic instruments, electric guitar and synthetic sound in a way that works for me without sparing a thought for genre — but I really have no idea what to call the end result other than ‘instrumental’.
Mainstream pop music is pretty much all about vocals, but look back at the history of music and you might see vocal-driven folk music on one hand and instrumental classical music on the other. Back in the pre-electricity days — which weren’t as far back as many of you might imagine — most ‘serious’ music was instrumental, yet nobody tried to force the pieces into an unsuitable category. It was just music and people either liked it or they didn’t. If it was big band music or a brass band, then the designation was exactly what it said on the tin, which is fair enough, but now there are so many possible styles using so many different combinations of instruments, that finding something to call it is a real problem. Maybe that’s why many of today’s successful composers of instrumental music write TV music or film scores rather than make records.
I don’t pretend to have a solution and maybe today’s record buyers have been so brainwashed by click track perfection and ‘sound like anybody but look pretty’ stage school vocals that they don’t want to explore anything else. However, I do feel that for those who have a genuine interest in exploring music rather than just wanting some inoffensive sonic wallpaper for their lives, good instrumental music has as much to offer as its vocal-driven counterparts.