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Subject: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: ChuckyG on 05/01/15 at 10:20 am

How many words can appear in a song before it's no longer considered an "instrumental"? The Champs, "Tequila" only has the word tequila shouted twice in it but is generally considered an instrumental.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyl7GP_VMJY?t=22s

"Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S has a couple different sampled spoken pieces in it so does that still count?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9gOQgfPW4Y

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: Philip Eno on 05/01/15 at 1:21 pm

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"Song for Guy" is a mainly instrumental piece of music by Elton John. The song opens with an octave solo piano. Shortly after the intro, a percussion section comes in, with additional wind chimes and synthesizers layered in as the melody repeats. The song is instrumental until the end, in which the line ' "Life isn't everything" 'is repeated over the primary melody line of the song.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: Foo Bar on 05/05/15 at 10:55 pm


How many words can appear in a song before it's no longer considered an "instrumental"? The Champs, "Tequila" only has the word tequila shouted twice in it but is generally considered an instrumental.

"Pump Up the Volume" by M/A/R/R/S has a couple different sampled spoken pieces in it so does that still count?


Tough call.  My rule in the grey areas is to ask whether the song would be as good with or without the vocals. 

I'm with you on Tequila as an instrumental; the song stands on its own whether someone sings "Tequila" or not.

The traditional rule is whether the focus is on the people singing or the talent of whoever's playing the instruments -- not necessarily applicable to house where the backbeat is essentially a drum loop. 

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  - Lil' Louis, French Kiss (Original Underground Mix), 1989

The entire song is a 9-minute series of layered loops with a little slowdown towards the end and a few seconds of sampled vocals, and on that basis I'll call Lil' Louis as much of an instrumental as Tequila.  The lack of virtuosity on the instruments doesn't change the concept.

I'm going to call Pump Up The Volume not-instrumental.  Too many samples.  You can sing along with each sample in sequence, from Wolfman Jack talking about the greatest record of the year, through Mars Needs Women.  They may not be lyrics, but they're integral to the song.  So integral that there was a sample-less "Instrumental" remix, which suggests that M/A/R/R/S didn't think of it as an instrumental either. 

Call that an instrumental and you call a lot of dance music, past and present, instrumental.  I'm not sure I'm willing to go that far.  Do I really want to call Kraftwerk's The Robots an instrumental?  Probably not. 

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  - Kraftwerk, Autobahn, 1974

My choice for a track where I'm not quite sure whether I want to call it instrumental-or-vocal would be Kraftwerk's Autobahn.  It has verses (barely) and a chorus (sort of), but the stretches of instrumental music between the lyrics are so long as to render the lyrics irrelevant.  It would sound just as good without the words.

And thanks for helping me dig up this animation I remembered from my childhood but hadn't seen in years.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: ChuckyG on 05/06/15 at 7:13 am


Tough call.  My rule in the grey areas is to ask whether the song would be as good with or without the vocals. 

I'm with you on Tequila as an instrumental; the song stands on its own whether someone sings "Tequila" or not.

The traditional rule is whether the focus is on the people singing or the talent of whoever's playing the instruments -- not necessarily applicable to house where the backbeat is essentially a drum loop. 


that's a good rule of thumb.  I'm going to try and use that.

the "Number one record" sample in "Pump Up The Volume" isn't Wolfman Jack (or in the US mix), it's someone called Lovebug Starski, I think it's meant to sound like Wolfman though.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: Arrowstone on 05/06/15 at 2:55 pm

A song without singing I wouldn't call "song" but a "piece".

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: nally on 05/07/15 at 11:42 pm


Tough call.  My rule in the grey areas is to ask whether the song would be as good with or without the vocals. 

I'm with you on Tequila as an instrumental; the song stands on its own whether someone sings "Tequila" or not.

For me it has been a tough call on that one too; after all, that word (and only that word) occurs at only three (?) places in the entire piece.

There is also the Surfaris' "Wipeout", which I think is an instrumental no matter what; a brief laughter followed by the title occurs at the beginning, and it's only instruments from then on.




The traditional rule is whether the focus is on the people singing or the talent of whoever's playing the instruments -- not necessarily applicable to house where the backbeat is essentially a drum loop. 

good points.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: nally on 05/07/15 at 11:48 pm

Another notable example: "Pick Up The Pieces" by Average White Band:

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Again, the only words in this song are the title, which are shouted a few times midway through the song, and then again towards the end.

I think it's basically an instrumental.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: karen on 05/09/15 at 8:38 am

Do The Hustle is another example

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: whistledog on 05/09/15 at 3:29 pm

As soon as someone starts singing, it's no longer an instrumental.  At least that's the way you think it would be.

Back in the very early 90s, one of my favourite songs was an album track by Technotronic called 'Come On'.  It is often regarded as an instrumental, despite it having some vocals within it. It's been since then, that I don't really know what is instrumental anymore ...

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Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: nally on 06/30/15 at 6:13 pm

There's also "Rock And Roll Part 2" by Gary Glitter. The only sung words in that song are several occurrences of "Hey!"

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: #Infinity on 07/01/15 at 6:16 am

Only if the vocals are part of a looped sample or simply used as a brief interlude, common in DJ and electronica music, would I still consider the song an instrumental.  If the song contains any lyrics that go beyond strictly phonetic use, then it's not an instrumental.  Metallica's To Live Is to Die, for example, does not count in my book because it contains a brief monologue towards the end of the track.

Subject: Re: When is a song no longer an instrumental?

Written By: yelimsexa on 07/01/15 at 6:18 am

Generally speaking, if the only words are infrequent chants/raps as what's been pointed out, yes. Remember though that way back in the early 20th century, many pop songs had an instrumental portion, followed by a vocal portion, and then another instrumental portion. This sort of diverged around the 1930s/40s Swing Era, where all-instrumentals and all-vocals started to predominate. I consider such songs as "Instrumental/Vocal" or vice-versa. Songs that have a singing portion for greater than say 15 seconds but less than approximately a quarter of the song are what I consider "mainly instrumental" like the Elton John song above.

Another good "instrumental" with just a short singing portion at the end is MFSB's TSOP. However, I'd consider the versions done for the TV show Soul Train to be a "mainly instrumental" since the name of the show is sung numerous times and "People All Over The World" is also added in.

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