In music, voice says what instruments can’t

There are few radio stations that play instrumental or classical music; the majority of songs being played are recent popular music. While people continue to write new instrumental pieces, modern music containing lyrics is played more frequently on the radio and in concert venues.

My studies in music theory and 11 years of practice with the clarinet caused me to develop an appreciation for instrumental music, but my love for music did not start when I first picked up a clarinet.

Stories written in music through lyrics have continued to move me and make me fall in love with artists over and over again. Instruments on their own are able to encompass emotion, but the fusing of music and language together is transformative and connects people.

Using words, stories are told in a direct way. While instrumental music is capable of conveying feeling, it is limited in its ability to tell a story, leaving the music’s interpretation up to the listener. People can derive a plethora of interpretations from pieces without words, but the addition of language still allows a range of interpretations. The background and perspectives each person adds to lyrics are distinctly unique from other music.

Lyrics provide context for how to interpret songs and include additional meaning beyond structures or harmonies. A singer sharing a story about a loved one they lost in a tragic accident gives the listener an understanding about what they are upset about, rather than leaving the cause of their sorrow a mystery. Minor keys can easily suggest sadness, but the lyrics provide context.

People who listen to lyrics they can relate to personally are able to connect with the music on a more intimate level when a story relates to their own. These connections allow people to connect to each other and feel less alone.

Singing requires no additional equipment. It is an organic way of creating music with the physical capabilities we were born with, and the use of lyrics and melody allow it to accomplish much more than, say, body percussion. People are capable of making music anywhere they choose, as the spirit moves them.

Even if a person has no material possessions of their own, singing can act as a cathartic form of expression for people at any level of the economic ladder. I have been touched when hearing about oppressed peoples’ use of song to keep in touch with their humanity throughout history. In the Holocaust, victims sang even in the death camps, effectively expressing themselves with their body alone. Singing allows expression without lugging along heavy equipment; it makes the production of music possible without the use of any instruments.

Using an instrument to portray human emotions can actually make it more difficult to convey a feeling effectively to the listener. Freshman clarinetist and vocalist Froya Olson said, “Voice is literally a part of you and connected to the emotions we are feeling in our brain, while an instrument is an extension of your body. Instruments make it harder to communicate, or feel that we need to over-communicate to express emotion.”

As humans, we pick up on the emotions contained in the voice easier than from an instrument. In band rehearsals, sometimes the conductor will prompt students to sing the melody in order to understand the emotion or character they intend to deliver more clearly. Translating emotion through an instrument is more difficult and requires more deliverance or over-exaggeration, while we naturally connect to our voices.

Voice is distinct and allows people to celebrate individuality. The ranges of pitch and timbre of different voices add other dimensions to music, while instruments have an expected design. Individual techniques can be used for slightly different tones, but it is much harder to pick out a specific clarinetist than a specific vocalist. People have different backgrounds where they develop dialects and possess diverse genetics, providing a unique quality to their voices.

It is easier to distinguish two vocalists’ version of the same piece of music than it is two people playing a piano piece. Brandi Carlile and Rufus Wainwright’s separate versions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” are strikingly different from one another, and listening to the different versions presents a worthwhile experience. While their renditions of the song use different instrumentation, the unique qualities of their voices are what make the renditions most distinct from each other.

YouTube is cluttered with covers of songs. I doubt people choose to listen to cover after cover of “Let it Go” from “Frozen” to see what choices were made with instrumentation. The qualities in each voice used within the covers are the prime ingredients of their musical concoctions.

Instrumental music is important, as it adds variety and does not limit the way a song can be interpreted. However, stories have powerful effects on us as humans. Language is a distinctly human quality, and vocal music is yet another way we can celebrate being human and connect with one another.

Going through several moves and losing family members growing up, there are songs and music artists to whom I owe so much for providing an outlet to overcome grief. Words and contexts transform our musical experiences and enhance our ability to perceive situations, making us feel for each other more as people.