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What is an instrumental?

New Wave/Punk music, culture, genres, memories. '80s revivalism and other relevant topics.

What is an instrumental?

Postby Passing_Stranger » Sat Apr 17, 2021 6:39 am

I'm on a hunt for "new wave" instrumental compositions, but am constantly confused and uncertain. What actually constitutes an "instrumental" track? The answer seems obvious - a track with no vocals or, broadly, voices. But is it so simple?

Have to state right away, I don't speak here of "voxless" versions of songs that were proliferating during the 1980s. Those are a different kettle of fish for me, I'm first and foremost interested in stand-alone compositions. So far I've come across quite a few variations of a formula. Here goes:

First seems to be a primarily instrumental track, but with vocals (or vocoder) chanting its title - sometimes once or twice, sometimes repeatedly. Examples are The B-52's "53 miles West of Venus" and ABC's "Chicago" respectively.

Second is mainly about mix - it has a loud instrumental track but also vocals (speaking) which are mixed low and are barely audible. You hear that something's being said or sung but have to hear closely to make it out (not always successfully). Examples are Night Moves's "Nightdrive" or Icehouse's "Paradise lost".

Third is a vocoder speak or noises (or voice electronically altered in general) during parts or across the track. This is not the singing as we know it and often it's not very intelligible - but still can be counted. Example - "Water clock secrets" by Torch Song.

Fourth is the use of sampled phrases or even the whole chunks of speech off the radio, TV etc. Those are not from the artist himself. Examples are Colourbox's "Fast dump" and Bill Nelson's "Hard facts from the fiction department" respectively. That's the most problematic for me - it's not singing, obviously, but the track doesn't seem to qualify as an instrumental too.

Fifth is the use of vocal noises - screams, grunts, cries etc. Those are very common for The Art of Noise, for example, or Yello. The variation here is a wordless singing over the musical bed (i.g. Siouxsie's "Clockface").

Sixth is the use of "found vocals", i.e. ethnic singing or somesuch (mainly for atmospheric effect).

So, quite a few deviations from the norm that are still often labeled as "instrumental". And the question is, what do you consider an instrumental track? Can any of the above (or all of those) be considered truly instrumental tracks? What do you think?
Last edited by Passing_Stranger on Sun Apr 18, 2021 6:08 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby xymox970 » Sat Apr 17, 2021 5:56 pm

This is a great - and really nicely elaborated - topic and, I might add, one especially close to my heart.
I just love (80s) instrumentals......of all kinds.

Here are just some that I would consider true instrumentals.....

Kajagoogoo - Kajagoogoo (category no.1)
Pete Shelly - Designer Lamps (category no.5)

Spandau Ballet - Age Of Blows (singing along along with the instrumental line at the very end)

I could also think of Jean-Michel Jarre - Revolutions (category no.3 - the use of vocoder), which is really an anomaly in his mostly instrumental opus
from the 80s......

......although they are not really entirely "pure" that way......
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby bigarbel » Sun May 02, 2021 5:23 am

I would really only have two types:

Instrumental: only musical instruments or electronic samples excluding all vocals.
Mainly instrumental: instrumental but with vocalisations, either live vocals or sampled ones; e.g. Duran Duran - Tel Aviv

Once you can make up words it seizes being an instrumental, even if it is just one or a few; e.g. Herbie Hancock - Rock It..
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby Passing_Stranger » Mon May 10, 2021 8:03 am

Guys, thank you very much for replies! Nice to see at least a bit of interest :D I myself gravitate towards fully instrumental tracks and often find myself annoyed when bits of vocals/voices are used, that's like cheating or something. If you don't have lyrics for a piece stay well away from the microphone, that's what I say :D Not that bits of vocals don't sometimes make a piece interesting - but generally I don't like it.

As for Jarre and other instrumental composers, well, I separate them here as they specialize in voiceless music. What I'm interested in in the context of this thread is instrumental compositions as anomalies of traditional bands.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby patsm00re18 » Fri Jun 18, 2021 12:35 am

I understand instrumental from the word itself where it is only he instruments being heard and there are no voices in the background.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby 80rulez » Sat Sep 18, 2021 11:51 am

You forgot about the DUB version. It's a normal composition with vocal eliminated
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby Passing_Stranger » Mon Sep 20, 2021 10:21 am

80rulez wrote:You forgot about the DUB version. It's a normal composition with vocal eliminated

No, of course I didn't :D My explanation is right at the beginning: "Have to state right away, I don't speak here of "voxless" versions of songs that were proliferating during the 1980s. Those are a different kettle of fish for me, I'm first and foremost interested in stand-alone compositions." They are different because they're written with vocal line in mind, not as their own piece of music. So that's a different topic.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby LMP69 » Tue Sep 21, 2021 6:35 pm

To me, an instrumental features no vocals whatsoever. There are lots of DUB versions that still contain vocals of some sort, thus at least to me, are not truly instrumentals. As soon as I hear any vocals whatsoever, I eliminate it as a true instrumental. I respect others may feel differently, just my own thoughts on the matter.

I might add that through the years, sometimes when I would hear a song for the first time, it would sound so mesmerizing and perfect I hoped like hell there would be no vocals to break the spell of what was a perfect instrumental. Two easy examples for me:

China Crisis - Dockland, Forever I And I
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby xymox970 » Wed Sep 22, 2021 1:03 pm

New Order - Dont Do It would qualify as an instrumental in my book, because the title of the track is only briefly spoken at a certain point......and in a barely recognizable manner.

On the completely opposite part of the spectrum, the same goes for the wonderful The Loner by Gary Moore.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby Passing_Stranger » Wed Sep 22, 2021 5:04 pm

LMP69 wrote:I might add that through the years, sometimes when I would hear a song for the first time, it would sound so mesmerizing and perfect I hoped like hell there would be no vocals to break the spell of what was a perfect instrumental. Two easy examples for me:

China Crisis - Dockland, Forever I And I

Same with me, for sure! Being a synth purist of sorts, I also hold my breath hearing what sounds like a synth instrumental not to feature any guitars or somesuch :D

Those CC compositions are among my very favourite ones in the whole instrumental subgenre. Even though written by different people, they have this unifying atmosphere that just draws you in. Another example of such pairing is "The experience of swimming" / "Width of a room" from Japan's 1x7" single.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby Passing_Stranger » Wed Sep 22, 2021 5:38 pm

xymox970 wrote:New Order - Dont Do It would qualify as an instrumental in my book, because the title of the track is only briefly spoken at a certain point......and in a barely recognizable manner.

On the completely opposite part of the spectrum, the same goes for the wonderful The Loner by Gary Moore.

I guess, we can add a separate category for compositions with only brief spoken parts.

I've only just heard "The loner" but it's fantastic! I'm quite far from hard'n'heavy but this is exquisite. Those very 1980s electronic drums help immensely, too :D Keen to hear more.
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby 80rulez » Thu Sep 23, 2021 9:28 pm

Based on your criteria, I would suggest UB40 - Dance With The Devil (from their self-titled 1988 album)
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby wasproxy » Tue Oct 05, 2021 6:22 pm

Always liked

Colourbox - Just Give Em Whiskey (samples galore)

and

Ad Infinitum - Telstar remake
John Foxx - Swimmer 2

(true instrumentals)
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Re: What is an instrumental?

Postby Seona85 » Wed Nov 24, 2021 10:39 am

I only count it as an instrumental if:
A) it has no vocals whatsoever (Patricia's Park by Alphaville)
B) the vocals are spoken rather than sung (The Secret by Glass Tiger)
C) the vocals are just voice clips (For Germans by Images in Vogue)
C) the vocals are very low in the mix, indiscernible, sung by a third party only very briefly or some such (Agnus Dei by OMD... don't kill me)
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