What’s in a Beat Anyway?
I vividly remember a conversation with an aspiring DJ friend of mine in England about the place of lyricism in music. Over a classic British cup of tea, he thought it fitting to play some songs for my listening pleasure. Half way into the second tune, I had to ask him if he had versions of these tracks with some lyrics. He laughed and then said, “Why would anyone want to ruin these songs with words over the music?” Before this encounter, I had often thought of classical music as the only form of music allowed to be free of lyrics. This was probably as a result of my lack of exposure to so many genres of music while growing up. My expectations of words over instrumentals left me feeling a sense of hunger every time a beat came up with no lyrics to go with it. Naturally, this stopped me from enjoying these songs for what they are because I always expected more—a classic case of discontentment as a side effect of unmet expectations.
Later, I would come to understand that lyrics are not necessary for the completeness of a song, no more than a definitive object is needed for the completeness of a painting. Like an abstract painting, instrumentals can be used to evoke emotions in us. This explains how certain kinds of music can be used therapeutically to enable us find calm and harmony. In fact, so powerful is the sound of music without the interruption of lyrics, that even mystics like Osho have been known to advocate its use as part of his deep meditation process.
In African music, instrumentals have long held a special place in song arrangement with Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti notoriously composing songs with lengthy instrumentals, and artists like I.K. Dairo and Victor Uwaifo putting up similar performances. With the emergence of sounds like trance and dance music, which consist largely of instrumentals, it is worth considering the revival of the African instrumentalist updated with contemporary influences to maintain him stay relevant and reliability with the audience.
For mass consumption, instrumentals that encourage passive head bopping and require little or no thought to interpret, are perfect for hit records. This is because by the laws of emotional entropy, the average person will naturally gravitate towards an activity requiring little energy, especially when it also promises pleasurable outputs. While relaxation by escapism is not always a bad idea if we hope to grow emotionally, we owe it to ourselves to invest some of our energy in activities that require the movement of our mental muscles. The mind, after all, bears a striking semblance with the body with regard to its pattern of development and decay. So if you find yourself with some time to spare for music, why not try some sounds you might not be usually used to and search your mind to see what emotions they stare in a moment of contemplation. You might just surprise yourself with your findings. There is certainly a truth to the saying that through art we can get to know ourselves better.
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