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L’INVITÉ DU FORUM : Go Back to Move Forward

Take a minute to think of your dream pop band set up and what it would consist of. Vocals? Backing Vocals? Drums? Guitar? Bass? Maybe a synthesiser? Was I close? Well why not a Violin? Maybe a brass section or Double Bass? Surely these instruments are worthy of being in a pop band? From where I stand, I can see a lack of variety in our modern music when it comes to orchestration. Why do we not use instruments that have served us in the Classical and Jazz field for so long?
The issue in my opinion is the way in which music has suddenly shot into the digital era. With programs such as Logic, Garageband, and Pro Tools, making music without been able to play an instrument has never been easier. This is great for the world as people can release their creativity in new ways. But with this there also seems to be neglect towards what came before and how it can define the future in modern music.  I can only put this down to a lack of experimentation or an innate need to forget the old. Maybe even a fear of the image of classical players?
If we look back at popular music over the past 60 years we can clearly see the transformation in the use of orchestral instruments in pop. I mean we only need to listen to pieces such as ‘Eleanor Rigby’ by the Beatles and ‘I Feel Good’ by James Brown to see and appreciate the richness to the sound that orchestral instruments bring to the aural pallet.  Not convinced? Maybe a few examples may change your mind.
It seems a shame to loose out on the creative options that are available when we incorporate and experiment with orchestral instruments in pop. But where have I heard of this happening in modern pop you may ask? Mumford and Sons are a prime example of using orchestral instrumentation in order to create a successful folk-pop formula. I remember first listening to this band and thinking, these guys have done something genius! However when you look at it properly there is no genius at all. It is merely letting the correct instrument play for the song. By this I mean the incorporation of the Double Bass instead of the electric bass guitar. This added a new, warmer, natural sound that in my opinion excelled the pieces to new levels. The same could be said for the incorporation of the banjo instead of the electric guitar. This was not only suitable for the genre but propelled the music to new levels. To put this point into practice I would recommend listening to the piece ‘Dustbowl Dance’ from their first album ‘Sigh No More’. When you listen to how perfect the arrangement is, could you imagine replacing the orchestration to that of a traditional pop band? Yet this unconventional band set up has propelled the band to world success with two acclaimed albums and a Glastonbury headline slot under their belts. This is a similar situation to what I face in my band Lauren Bradford. As a bassist and double bassist it is always important to play for the song at all times. And so this has made me take the Double Bass as my primary instrument for the band. This is because it fits the song more than the conventional electric bass. Even though both instruments have the same notes, you would be surprised how the different sounds and tones can transform a piece of music.
Now let’s look at orchestral instrumentation in dance music. Now this is particularly important to my point of musicians ignoring orchestral instruments as how could dance music ever use orchestral instruments? Clean Bandit has shown the world what can be done when modern dance music meets classical instrumentation. The band is set to achieve great things and have already won a Grammy for best dance track. But would you ever think that an electronic dance band would shoot to fame using a cello and a violin (two instruments from the orchestral string family)? The key I believe here is that there is a tendency to ignore classical instrumentation because of modern popular music’s up-tempo beats and use of electronic instruments. However what we have with Clean Bandit is a band using classical instruments to create new dance sounds that are catchy enough to be top of the charts. I would ask everyone who has not already heard the track ‘Rather Be’ to listen to it and make up your decision. With this example it is important to state that this music is partly created on computer software tools such as Logic and Pro Tools.  These packages both have on-board software orchestral instruments. These can be used in exactly the same way as any other software instrument. So why not give them a try? You may be pleasantly surprised.
Still not convinced? Maybe two more quick examples. I could think of few people who haven’t heard the name Metallica. One of the biggest metal bands of all time, they would never use classical instruments… right? Well check out the 1999 album ‘S&M Live’, the live album the band recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In particular listen to the track ‘No Leaf Clover’ to see how the full orchestra combined to enhance Metallica’s sound into new powerful levels.
Finally lets bring it closer to modern day with… Mark Ronson. By now everyone has heard ‘Uptown Funk’. Well this piece is a perfect final example because of one key reason. This piece, similar to Metallica, uses a full pop setup, however it incorporates a full brass section. This piece embellishes the great Funk songs that shaped the genre and have not been heard in modern music for so long. Not only does the track do this, the brass section is arguably the hook of the entire piece, making many people dance all over the world. The real kicker… Ronson is a producer, so why would he put in a brass section? Because the song would not be what it is today without it.
This brings me back to my opening question. Why aren’t a lot of people not using orchestral instruments in modern pop? Well among my other theories mentioned above, I think perhaps the biggest factor is lack of knowledge of the possibilities of what these instruments can do. I was like this myself when I was younger in my musical life. However the fact remains, all of us, musicians and music listeners, should be open to how the old can influence and improve the new. Would people have ever thought 100 years ago that we could create music purely from a computer? No… but look at us now… and why? Because we experimented and improved. I urge everyone to listen to a full range of instruments in music, find combinations, even if you just listen to the examples listed above. By doing so you are broadening your horizons to see new ways to create pop music that you may never of thought of. As long as people are open to the incorporation of the old into the new, I believe that a new generation of musicians can follow the path led by pioneers such as Mumford and Sons and Clean Bandit, and that our musical horizons can widen even further.

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