Instrumental music, without the concrete and soothing presence of words, can present a listening challenge. It demands attention and devotion; its answers do not lie in the open. The listener has to gently search within the pieces to find what is being stated.
But the fact that the sound is paramount is special. Instrumental music allows us to disengage from language, which is powerful but sometimes exhausting, and allow ourselves to experience music as something apart from intellect and reason, apart from that which can, and perhaps should, be explained. Instruments speak to the nature of art as a profound and visceral exchange.
Below is a list of instrumental artists that serve as great gateways to this vast world of music that quiets the mind and feeds the soul.
This Mexican classical guitar duo grew up in Mexico City listening to flamenco, jazz, rock, and metal. In order to produce music that is different and special, all of these genres are blended into simultaneously ferocious and meticulous playing. Their skill, unity, and attention to detail sets them apart as a duo.
2. Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile
While Yo-Yo Ma is best known as a solo cellist, he collaborates widely with musicians across genres and cultures, thereby reaffirming the humanity and oneness that is central to music. In this ensemble cellist Yo-Yo Ma collaborates with experienced bluegrass musicians Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan. Their album The Goat Rodeo Sessions consists of glorious, twinkling bluegrass tracks featuring bass, violin, cello, and mandolin, and dives straight into the beautiful heart of the genre.
3. Yo-Yo Ma
Yo-Yo Ma himself is incredible to watch in performance. He is a person who treats the instrument and craft with respect; his joy while immersed in music is clear, and the love and symbiosis come through when he coaxes living, breathing music out of the cello.
4. Sound of China
Sound of China is a California-based music promotion center and zither business. They post grainy "tutorials" on their YouTube channel, which are in fact not tutorials but gorgeous performances of traditional Chinese tunes by the guzheng-loving staff members. Their "tutorials" are incredibly stirring and bare and serve as a great gateway to the world of traditional Chinese music, demonstrating the elastic and heart-wrenching texture of the instrument.
5. Chris Thile
Now the host of the historical radio show "Live From Here," formerly "A Prairie Home Companion," Chris Thile is an almost unnaturally talented mandolin player who has spread the bluegrass genre across radio with impressive solo and collaborative work. Additionally he is a musician with a unique, fabulous, and highly expressive way of moving. While this low-quality clip is not from one his albums, it demonstrates how he engages differently with his instrument depending on the piece.
It is wonderful and fun to listen to EMEFE, a group which incorporates brass instruments into an exuberant electronic funk setting. The sounds feel invigorating and new, youthful and yet also aged enough that they are able to paint real pictures and construct real settings with their sound.
7. Anoushka Shankar
Anoushka Shankar, daughter of famous sitarist Ravi Shankar, also plays the sitar; but by introducing elements of popular South Asian music into her pieces she gives it a unique and fabulous glimmer. Shankar also addresses social and cultural issues in her songs. She has a wonderful ear for the sensitive and plaintive voice of her instrument, as well as for the rich, searing musical accompaniment needed to make this voice soar.
8. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra or Det Norske Kammerorkester
The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, or Det Norske Kammerorkester, performs both classical and contemporary music with an emphasis on creative and unique programming. What is perhaps most striking about them is the movement across the ensemble—they are not rigid, but rather move in tandem with the sounds they wish to produce. They also choose conductors from within the group depending on the piece, and are thus serve as a fine example of accountability, respect, and unity.
9. Iain Fraser
Iain Fraser is a Scottish fiddle-player and teacher who understands the emotional range and capabilities of his instrument. This understanding can be felt in his simple but wonderfully expressive performances of everything ranging from traditional Scottish songs to original works.
10. Maxence Cyrin
Maxence Cyrin is a French composer and arranger of piano music. While classically taught, he has an affinity for pop and electronic music, and how classical and pop music can converse with one another. A number of his albums renovate '90s grunge, electronic, and rock music as sensitive, candid piano rhapsodies, finding melodiousness within these deliberately cacophonous works.
11. Ethan Uslan
Ethan Uslan is a classically trained pianist based in Charlotte, North Carolina who in college became enthralled with ragtime and early jazz. He has a unique gift for breathing new life into known pieces, embedding tasteful, exciting, and seemingly effortless decorations into the musical texture.
12. Sheila E
While this video includes vocals as well, percussionist Sheila E. is clearly the star. Born into a musical family, Sheila E. (unusually) learned to lead with her left hand, leaving her right hand free for keeping time and her left for improvisation. Her fearlessness and passion are obvious; she embodies the percussion, and she is one of the coolest women alive.