What Is Acoustic Music? With 9 Top Examples & History
Acoustic music has been around for as long as music itself. Many of the most popular artists to this day are acoustic or make acoustic music. If you’ve been curious about acoustic music, we’re here to help. Here’s a quick overview of the genre with some excellent examples and musicians to know.
Definition: What Is Acoustic Music?
The acoustic music definition is a bit harder to pin down. Typically, any music that primarily features acoustic instruments can fit the definition. That is to say, any music that focuses on acoustic instruments rather than electric or electronic music.
However, some bodies like the International Acoustic Music Awards consider acoustic music to be any music that dominantly has an acoustic instrument. By this definition, a dubstep or house electro song can still be acoustic if there’s a loud enough acoustic guitar on the track.
For our definition, we’ll be looking at bands and musicians that mostly use acoustic instrumentation and a singer without a modulated voice.
Acoustic Music Characteristics
Acoustic music often pairs with emotional and soft-spoken lyrics. It’s common for singer-songwriters to have a single instrument and their own voice, such as a guitar or piano. Genres like folk and emo commonly take the form of acoustic music for its raw, “real” tone.
Different cultures and regions will have their own sound of acoustic music. Bluegrass is common in the American South and dominantly has fiddles, banjos, guitars, and differing forms of percussion. Acoustic music in eastern Asia, the United States, South America, Europe, etc., will all have different sounds and instruments.
Acoustic music is often a storytelling medium as well. There’s a long history of such through cultures that pass down their history musically, as the instruments to do so weren’t made electric until relatively recent in human history.
9 Examples Of Acoustic Music
Acoustic music holds such variety that you could make a list of hundreds of songs and have completely unique tracks each time. That said, if you’re completely new to the genre, these 9 examples have a great sampling of what acoustic music can hold. Each of the following musicians is from a different genre, with the only similarity being that they each feature acoustic music.
1. Wake Up by Coheed and Cambria
Our first track comes from a progressive rock band, Coheed and Cambria. While not an acoustic band, the group has several acoustic tracks, with Wake Up being arguably the most popular of them. One wouldn’t struggle to find a video of the song.
This song is well-known for having a tone that sounds like a sweet and loving ballad. If you’re paying attention to the lyrics, you can spot something much more sinister going on. It’s even more alarming if you’re aware of the graphic novels that frontman Claudio Sanchez writes and bases the music on.
Musically, the song is almost entirely acoustic. There’s an electric guitar playing in some slight parts of the song, but the leading melody and chorus carries on an acoustic melody. It’s a beautiful fusion that kicks off our list showing how versatile acoustic music truly is.
2. Hurt Less by Julien Baker
When we said that acoustic music often carries emotional themes, we meant it. Julien Baker’s Hurt Less is an acoustic love song that focuses on keeping yourself safe to keep someone else happy. A video of her playing live shows the raw emotion the artist puts into her music.
Julien Baker’s voice carries a story of a narrator thinking casually on their own death with indifference. Speaking on how sharing their days with someone else makes everything hurt less, the sparse song brings an acoustic piano and a violin to accompany Baker’s voice. It’s a tear-jerking acoustic song that shows the many instruments that are brought to the forefront in the genre.
3. Resurrection Fern by Iron & Wine
Narratively, it’s hard to pin down Resurrection Fern. Sam Beam – better known as Iron & Wine – twists a narrative through his rural storytelling style. While there isn’t an official music video, it’s easy to find a video of Sam Beam playing the song live without much of the album version’s instrumentation.
Invoking imagery of the American south and a life spent outdoors, Beam brings tender instrumentation through every line. The only instruments outside of his voice are an acoustic guitar and faint percussion through tambourines and maracas.
4. Redemption Song by Bob Marley & The Wailers
Bob Marley is one of the most legendary singers of the last century, without question. While much of his music is acoustic, Redemption Song remains one of his most dominant tracks. As this song is one of the handful of times Bob Marley plays alone, one can see his band watching him with admiration in the music video.
Bob Marley was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life before writing this song. Marley encourages listeners to free their own minds, melding lyrics from Pan-Africanist orator Marcus Garvey into the song.
Redemption Song is undoubtedly one of Marley’s most iconic works, commonly making its way on to Greatest Songs of All Time lists. It’s an acoustic ballad that leaves you with a somber inspiration.
5. Better Together by Jack Johnson
Nowadays, Jack Johnson is one of the first artists to come to mind when discussing acoustic music. Releasing originally in 2005 and then as a single in 2006, Better Together is one of Johnson’s most recognizable songs. The music video shows him singing the song to a massive audience that already knows the song by heart.
Shortly after release, the song would chart extremely well. It went gold in the US and Italy and platinum in the UK and Denmark. Charting as high as 22nd, Better Together is a heartwarming love song featuring acoustic instrumentation and Johnson’s comforting voice.
6. Flashlight by The Front Bottoms
But acoustic songs aren’t all love ballads, and The Front Bottoms are happy to remind the world of this. As the first track on their self-titled album, Flashlight had plenty to say.
Telling a story that focuses on drug addiction and a need for normalcy, this song also brings more instruments into the fold. Instrumentally, the song is led by an acoustic guitar, as most of the band’s songs are. The music video shows the band lit only by flashlights, glow-in-the-dark accessories, and firelight.
An electric guitar is audible in the background for brief parts of the song. Past this, acoustic trumpets, drums, and guitar make up the rest of the song. It’s a quick, lovesick ballad that helps disprove the myth that acoustic always means quiet and somber.
7. Drunken Dancers by Hanna & Kerttu
Acoustic music crosses borders of nations and cultures. Hanna & Kerttu take this literally, having jumped between Helsinki, Oslo, Bergen, and now Berlin. Much of the duo’s earlier music takes the form of acoustic “sounds from the woods.”
Nailing down the story of Drunken Dancers is difficult, but it also proves that acoustic doesn’t always mean quiet. The majority of the song is made up only of a quiet vocal passage and a single acoustic guitar.
As the instrumentation soars and the tone turns accusatory, Drunken Dancers proves more than a soft ballad. In addition to a sinister music video, Drunken Dancers can leave a listener feeling almost unnerved.
8. Coming Home by Dallas Green
Dallas Green has several musical projects. His work under the name City and Colour brought Coming Home, an acoustic ballad for the homesick.
Through the song, Green speaks about the places that he’s seen throughout his life. He rattles off some of the most beautiful locations but discusses a homecoming. The song turns to a heartsick love song as it’s revealed that the narrator is coming home to someone he loves that may not feel the same in return.
Musically, there’s nothing more than an acoustic guitar and a heartsick voice, a tone the music video matches. It’s a somber song that shows the emotional side of acoustic music as much as any other song by Green can manage.
9. Lua by Bright Eyes
Last on our list is a song that went viral by one of the most notable names in emo. Conor Oberst’s work as Bright Eyes has been one of the most defining discographies in emo and acoustic throughout the 2000s and late 90s.
Lua tells a story of substance abuse and life in a city. Premiering 89th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Songs of the 2000s,” Lua is one of the most beloved songs by Oberst. It remains popular nearly two decades later, featuring in modern media like the third episode of Life Is Strange. While the song is typically only Oberst, there’s a popular video of him playing it with a full band and three other singers.
5 Top Acoustic Musicians
Three of the five following artists are prolific enough to have also been on the list above. Nailing down the best acoustic musicians is tough, as defining an acoustic musician is difficult, to begin with. Here are five of the top acoustic musicians.
1. Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson’s voice was one of the most defining characteristics of acoustic music in the last two decades. Johnson’s music is ever-present and popular with, songs that find themselves in the playlists of weddings and movies alike.
A former professional surfer, Johnson and his wife Kim also made the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation and the Kōkua Hawaii Foundation. Environmental themes often make themselves known in Johnson’s soft rock and acoustic music. With inspiration from Marley, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and countless more, Johnson is one of the most well-known acoustic artists to date.
2. Sam Beam
Better known under the name Iron & Wine, Sam Beam is often seen as one of the greatest modern folk voices. Before turning to music full time, Beam taught at the University of Miami as a professor of film and cinematography.
His music contains themes of his upbringing in South Carolina and Virginia, now living in North Carolina. Beam’s songs hold topics of the American South, the loss of religion, and much more. Many know him from the song Flightless Bird, American Mouth, which is present in the prom scene of the film Twilight.
3. Conor Oberst
Though not all of Oberst’s music is acoustic, many of the most notable tracks with him fit the genre. Better known under Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst has been part of a vast number of musical projects. This includes the Faint, Commander Venus, Monsters of Folk, and the recent Better Oblivion Community Center with artist Phoebe Bridgers.
Oberst’s music ranges from folk to Americana to emo. Acoustic ballads like Lua and First Day of My Life are some of the most classic acoustic titles to date. In 2008, Rolling Stone named Oberst as the Best Songwriter of 2008. He’s an incredible musician that continues to put out astounding acoustic music to this day.
4. Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan needs no introduction – it’s hard to listen to music of any sort without hearing his influence. This is especially the case in acoustic music, where the singer-songwriter is generally seen as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Dylan brings a great deal of political counterculture to his folk and blues music.
Having sold more than 125,000,000 records, Dylan is among the best-selling musicians of all time. He also has ten Grammys, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Dylan has a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and a Nobel Prize in Literature for his music. Needless to say, Bob Dylan is one of the most notable musicians of any genre. No music fan can overlook Bob Dylan’s work.
5. Phoebe Bridgers
Closing out our list is a name a bit more recent than the others on the list. Phoebe Bridgers is a modern sensation that’s taken the acoustic music scene by force in recent years. She’s a third of boygenius with fellow artists Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Additionally, she forms Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst.
On her own, Bridgers’ Stranger in the Alps was a 2017 debut that put her on the map. 2020’s Punisher earned her four Grammy Award nominations, including Best New Artist. Her music is often somber and heartsick, mixing effects and acoustic instrumentation to tug your heartstrings until they snap.
The History Of Acoustic Music
The history of all music becomes the history of acoustic music. It’s commonly said that the first acoustic instrument is the human voice. Past this, the first acoustic instrument is thought to be the flute some 43,000 years ago.
All music was acoustic until the invention of electric instruments. Modern acoustic music often comes from the 1960s rock bands that began to experiment with acoustic songs. Artists like Nirvana, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and countless more would make acoustic music one of the most popular categories.
Around the 2000s, indie musicians began to make acoustic songs among the most dominant music. Acts like Green Day, Oasis, Bright Eyes, and many others brought popularity to “contemporary acoustic.” Acoustic is popular in performance due to needing little to no setup and having a lower cost, as well as being more friendly to a relaxing indoor environment.
Acoustic music continues to flourish, and it’s highly unlikely that such a thing will change anytime soon. Most of music history lies in acoustic music, from the most classic and traditional songs to love ballads that came out this year.
What Is Acoustic Music? Final Thoughts
Acoustic music is a broad category that fits a wide scope of music acts and genres into its blanket. Its primary characteristic is using instruments that take no power, making it generally a quieter and more relaxing genre. Acoustic music makes up the bulk of the history of music up until modern days and even still remains one of the most popular categories for music.
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