Thoughts On Instrumentation
It dawned on me the other day about the importance of instrumentation to the promotion of music. Many times the instrumentation that you select for a song--whether it be solo piano, orchestral, or pop--will make your listener decide immediately whether they want to continue to listen to your music. Here's what I mean...
If you're flipping through radio stations, catch a quick ad on TV, or even stumble across a user's MySpace page on the internet, the first thing that you'll hear when a piece of music starts playing is its instrumentation. Even before you hear lyrics, even before you hear a melody, even before you can figure out how fast a piece of music is, you'll immediately identify what's playing it. You may not know the specifics--is that an oboe or English horn? Nylon string guitar or finger-picked acoustic?--but you'll immediately get a rough sense of what's producing the sounds that you hear. And based on that snap judgment, chances are you'll immediately know what genre of music it is, and based on your existing biases, make a decision whether you'll want to keep listening or not.
In this day and age, most music is stumbled upon--that is, you casually came across it in an iPod commercial, or an episode of Grey's Anatomy, or even a video game. So what if the choices that you make in instrumentation are SO powerful, and SO compelling, that the moment someone hears the combination of instruments that you use, they're compelled to keep listening? That would be a powerful tool.
There's not a lot of music out there with instrumentation this compelling, however. If you work within a specific genre, a lot of times your instrumental choices will be made for you--acoustic instruments for country, electronic for electronica, beats for hip hop, orchestra for classical, etc. So to find stuff like this, one probably has to turn to more crossover artists. To give you a few examples, the first time I heard Bjork was a revelation. The way she would mix delicate timbres like a music box with heavy electronic beats in 'Pagan Poetry' was inspired:
I was not a huge Sting fan, but the first ever single I bought of his was his duet with Cheb Mami on the song 'Desert Rose', which I first heard in a Jaguar commercial. The mix of commercial production with Arabic vocals grabbed my attention, and I went and bought the track:
Peter Gabriel's 'Passion' soundtrack was a huge inspiration for me. Talk about fusing world music elements with synths... Peter Gabriel rewrote the rule book on this one.
My friends the On Ensemble do great work like this as well--fusing traditional Japanese music with hip hop and electronica:
And let's not forget all the excellent African music/pop fusion that's been done out there, by the likes of Paul Simon in Graceland and Hans Zimmer for The Lion King, perhaps the music that 'Baba Yetu' gets compared to most often. (Personally, while I love Hans' music and admire him as a composer, I don't think Baba Yetu and The Lion King are really all that similar. Most people make the comparison because it's the closest cultural reference they have to anything that's an African choral hybrid, but neither of us were the first to fuse African choral music with orchestral writing, and hopefully neither of us will be the last.)