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Fist of all I know my question is subjected to preferences, I know many people that actually like this kind of music.

However, sometimes I've heard songs that had vocals originally and are played by instruments, usually bowed string (cellos most of the time) or wind instruments (saxes), and I find it very irritating. I feel like it is overplayed and lacks the emotions that the voice on the original song conveys. Kind of that those instruments have (at least to me) an inherent "texture" of "flow" or whatever word it is that I can't find and a certain emotional meaning with it; when it stays throughout the whole song it feels monotonal. The voice, on the other hand, is more versatile and conveys different emotions far easier than an instrument.

My question is if there is any theory in music or maybe any other field related to this and if I am just the only one who doesn't like it because I am just too ignorant.

  • A couple of questions - 1) what is your reaction when you hear instrumental versions of songs that you didn't know originally had lyrics (and only later learned did so?) 2) how do you feel when you hear an instrumental solo that is based on themes from the vocal, like a guitar solo or sax break? – topo Reinstate Monica Jun 2 at 22:49
  • @topoReinstateMonica 1) I wouldn't know. I'm not sure I've ever experienced that before, but if it was the case was clearly not relevant or I would remember it. – MaxWell Jun 2 at 22:52
  • @topoReinstateMonica 2) I'm not sure I understand what kind of "based on" you refer to. Would you give me an example? – MaxWell Jun 2 at 22:54
  • 2) Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana springs to mind - here's a link to the relevant part, just before the solo starts youtu.be/hTWKbfoikeg?t=161 – topo Reinstate Monica Jun 2 at 22:59
  • @topoReinstateMonica Ah, well I actually like it, maybe it's just because of my musical preferences. But I fell that even in this song, it is just a small part of it and doesn't "saturate" the whole song. – MaxWell Jun 2 at 23:02
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I downvoted the question because it can only be answered with speculation. But what I would speculate is that your dislike for instrument-playing-vocal-melody has little to do with inherent problems of that, but instead:

Such performances are, more often than not, musically just quite poor – both poorly arranged and poorly played. They tend to fall in three categories:

  1. Amateur ensemble that normally plays classical music, big band jazz etc., attempting something “modern and hip” for a change.
  2. Production company trying to make some safe cash by recording famous songs that people searching for some unintrusive background music may be interested in.
  3. Virtuoso showing off their solo skills but trying to keep it digestible to their audience by selecting a well-known song.

There's nothing wrong with any of that, but there are problems, starting with the arrangement. In 1. and 2., this will be done by someone paid just to get the job done, likely not with much enthusiasm (and not necessarily without much artistic skill to begin with). In 3., the arrangement is done by the soloist whose real goal it's just to underpad the solo, without much concern for making it a balanced and consistent whole.

Then there's the performance itself.
In 1.: an amateur ensemble can obviously not be expected to have the level as professionals playing original material. In particular, amateur ensemble players don't tend to have a very creative-artistic approach to their music; they may do alright when just playing something like in a professional recording they know, but uninspired when it comes to bringing up something different.
In 2.: that would be done by session musicians, likely not paid very well and largely uninterested in the project. They'll see it as just a job, and play it just good enough so there's nothing particular to complain about.
In 3. we have kind of the opposite problem: the virtuoso will hopelessly overplay the part, with excessive ornamentation and other expressive whose purpose it's less to be musically tasteful than to show off technical prowess.

Of course that doesn't mean all such performances are bad. Here are some instrumental-covers that I like a lot:

Category 3. Jeff Beck is an incredible guitarist. His unique sound may not be everyone's taste, but he definitely uses it in a very controlled consistent manner. And after a career like he had, he certainly doesn't need to prove anything to anybody!

Not sure if this is 1. or 2.. I think most of the players are amateurs, and it's not perfectly executed, but it's definitely clear how much enthusiasm for this particular project is in the room.

3., so very much. It's obviously ridiculously overplayed, but that's the point.

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Not necessarily a 'theory' reason, but each instrument has its different strengths, and a part written for one instrument won't necessarily suit being played by another instrument. The same is true for a given instrument and voice.

Think of a stock rock show-off guitar solo. Might not be your cup of tea, but can anyone sing notes as crisply and fast as they can be played on the guitar? No.

The other way round - can the guitar produce the subtle timbral variations of the human voice? can it say words? No. Well it could if you played it through a vocoder or something, but I suspect that's not in the spirit of your question.

So it could just be that you get annoyed by hearing something that essentially lacks some of what you liked about the original musical part - namely the expressive inflections, the timbral variations, and the words.

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I wouldn't call your preference ignorant. On the contrary, it seems based on knowledge of the original vocal version!

I wonder how you respond to a performance where you didn't know it was originally a song? Or a song like 'Stardust' that was composed as an instrumental but (despite its thoroughly un-vocal melodic line) became a strong contender for Greatest Song Ever?

One thought. Preferences are valid, but beware of being ruled by them.

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  • I've just heard Stardust (I guess you were referring to the Lionel Hampton song), and I'm really not a fan of jazz but in spite of that had had some joyful moments. I didn't find it "the Greatest Song Ever" but it didn't feel wrong either. I'm actually more concerned about songs that I've liked before turning bad by being interpreted with an instrument. – MaxWell Jun 2 at 23:57
  • Hampton (and many others) recorded Stardust, But it belongs to Hoagy Carmichael. Interesting that he performed it with considerable disregard for the beautiful melody! youtube.com/watch?v=gvhq3V8ZhTA – Laurence Payne Jun 3 at 0:23

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