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Voice instrumental music

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Voice instrumental music

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Voice instrumental music describes compositions and improvisations for the human voice. Such music treats the human voice as an instrument. It seeks to use the human voice to express and perform music without words. Although a class of singing, it does not use words. The human voice is used as if it were a musical instrument. The mouth produces timbre and rhythm.

In many cases, people listening to songs sung in languages they do not understand are treating those songs as voice instrumentals, even if the words do have meaning in the original tongue.


Mediterranean-voice instrumentals

Elaborate traditions of improvisations was and still is an important element in Turkish and Middle Eastern music traditions. Such voice music existed prior to the 1200s and the First Crusade into Palestine and the city of Jerusalem, possibly even before the year 900. The early Christian plainsongs and Gregorian chants have their origins in Jewish voice instrumental music called nigun.

Ancient voice music

Its use may even be older, considering that contemporary music and classic European music developed as a derivative of its parents, the Classic Poetry and the Myth-Drama plays from the Fertile Crescent Civilizations of Ancient Asia Minor and Northern Africa (Egypt, Rome, Persia, Mesopotamia Valley, Greece, Ethiopia, etc).

Interestingly, the modern descendants of the ancient !Kung tribes and clans of Southern Africa utilize similar traditional music techniques. That could mean the practice of musical onomatopoeia may be as old as human civilization.

European classical - Voice instrumental music

In Classical music, especially, since the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Carl Orff and Wagnerian composers, the role of voice instrumental music for solo vocalist, voices or chorus, as part of the orchestral score, has become very prominent.

The tradition of voice instrumental is very old and strong one in European classical music. It has its roots in the Jewish Nigun and further elaborated in the Gregorian chants. The Vocal instrumental concerto and the figured bass, along with a cappella compositions, during the baroque were a form of the use of the voice as an elaborate instrument. Later on Mozart operas had many arias begin in gibberish using the voice as a tonal instrument. This led to the serious use of voice instrumental music in classical compositions.

However, it was only with the rise of orchestral harmonic-chromatic music that voice instrumental music became a forceful feature in compositions. Richard Wagner used the voice as an integral instrument of the orchestra. His music interwoved the human voice and the orchestral counterpoints into a structural whole. Continuing this German neo-romantic tradition was the music of Gustav Mahler. His compositions used the voice as an orchestral instrument. Even though the voices are assigned words, the essential purpose of the voice is to express the human voice beyond words and linguistic meaning. This is exemplified in the symphonic compositions Das Lied von der Erde and Eighth Symphony also called as symphony of a thousand, because of its usage of a 150 musician voice orchestra along with a 120 person symphony orchestra.

Voice instrumental in 20th century Classical music

In 20th century classical music, one of the most prominent voice instrumental composers was the German composer Carl Orff. He composed voice instrumental music like Carmina Burana and Catulli Carmina, using voices and choral music which created forceful and primitive inspired rhythmic patterns and simple but powerful harmonic structure. The Second Viennese School, especially Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg made the elaborate use of voice as instrument in what they called as Sprechmusik and Sprechstimme. Schoenberg employed these in his music Pierrot Lunaire, while Berg employed it in Wozzeck. Their music was also called as Sprechgesang. Voice orchestra was also used in the Kyrie by the Swiss composer Frank Martin.

In avant-garde music, voice instrumental musics became an integral aspect of aleatory music by composers like Luciano Berio and Steve Reich. The Russian saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin performed a piece called Concerto for Voice and Orchestra, which used the voice of Datevik Hovhannessian as a soloist instrument instead of the violin or the piano. Other concerto for voices were written by John Foulds : Lyra Celtica: Concerto for voice and orchestra op. 50 (1920s) and Reinhold M. Glière : concerto for voice and orchestra (1943).

The Polish composer Henryk Górecki composed a prominent part for voice as an instrument in his third symphony Symphony of sorrowful songs, evoking the Holocaust.

At present elaborate voice instrumental improvisations have become an important part of European free improvisation. This is a type of European classical music that combines the flow of improvisations and the rigour of atonal music.

Voice Transmutation in experimental Classical music

The French composer Pierre Boulez makes use of voice transmutation which he calls as centre and absence. In this the voice is used as an initial compositional model but which would not appear in the final form. Voice transmutation are also done by composers like Jonathan Harvey in compositions like Mortuos plango, vivos voco which interpolates the voice into instrument with the aid of computer techniques.

Maja Ratkje is a Norwegian vocalist and composer using various extended techniques.

Various folk traditions

A form of Voice improvisation known as Thillana is a very important feature of Carnatic music from South India.

Tuvinian throat singing often features wordless and improvised song. The sygyt technique is a particularly good example of this.

The Sámi yoik is also a predominantly wordless form of vocal expression.

The musical tradition of "mouth music" (Puirt a Beul) was used in various forms of traditional music in the Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic communities.

Hasidic Jews use a form of voice improvisation called nigunim. This consists of wordless tunes vocalized with sounds such as "Bim-bim-bam" or "Ai-yai-yai!", often accompanied by rhythmic clapping and drumming on the table. Examples of this can be seen in the films The Chosen and A Stranger Among Us.

Voice instrumentals in Jazz and Popular Music

The most common types of voice improvisation in the Western world are found in jazz which knows it as scat singing and vocalese. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald were both famous for their scat singing, and many other major figures in jazz, from Betty Carter to Mel Torme, also use the form. In pop music, doo-wop and other forms of rhythm and blues music employ it; in the Gaelic tradition, there are many terms for it, one of which is diddling. The nonsense choruses of old English ballads, "Hey nonny nonny" and the like are another well known example. Some contemporary jazz musicians have used what they call voicestra, using the voice as an orchestral ensemble. Barbershop music style is also used in many a popular songs. Jazz composers like Rhiannon have concentrated on exploring the beauty of voice instrumental improvisations in jazz music.

Hip hop music has a very distinct form of vocal percussion known as beatboxing. It involves creating beats, rhythms, vocal scratching and melodies using the human voice as an instrument.

The neo-minimalist Film composer James Horner wrote music with voice instrumental passages by Charlotte Church for the motion picture A beautiful mind. A vocal orchestra music is used in the motion picture Paradise Road. It presented a 50 member female singing ensemble, set on the Japanese front of World War II.

Another contemporary example is the almost entirely a cappella album, Medúlla, by Icelandic singer/songwriter Björk. It features beatboxing, choral arrangements and throat singing. "Our Prayer" by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys is a wordless, acapella workout, featuring multiple vocal lines that intertwine and modulate into various chord shapes. Japanese singer/songwriter, Cornelius, uses the same technique on the title-track of Fantasma.

Singer Bobby McFerrin has recorded a number of albums using only his voice and body, with some tracks as voice instrumentals and others, like his infamous big hit "Don't Worry, Be Happy", consisting of a standard lyric melody backed by "instrumental" tracks also consisting of various McFerrin vocalizations. (On the same album, he performs a version of "Sunshine of Your Love" in which he replicates Eric Clapton's original guitar solo using only his voice.) McFerrin has also collaborated with classical and jazz musicians.

Voice instrumental music is featured in Pink Floyd's music; "The Great Gig in the Sky", from the album the Dark Side of the Moon. The progressive rock piece "Echoes" by Pink Floyd, also uses the voice as part of the instrumental music even though there are sparse lyrics assigned to the voice parts. Others include Yes and Queen, notably the latter's "Seaside Rendezvous" on the album A Night at the Opera.

Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Rós' untitled 2003 album features nonsensical lyrics for the entirety of the album. Singer Jón Þór Birgisson refers to this as a fictional language he calls Hopelandic.


Onomatopoeic music uses the mouth and vocal folds (that is, voice) as the primary musical instrument. A common musical tool in European and American cultures is a method of voice music, technically called as solfege. A solfege is a vocalized musical scale that is commonly known as Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti. A solfege may be sung, spoken or used in a combination. A variety of similar tools are found in scat singing of jazz, Delta blues and also rock and roll and the ska of reggae (the last which is also called Two Tone).

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