#1
Forgive me for sounding ignorant, this is really an honest inquiry.

Can instrumental music actually be about something? Because of its lyric-less nature, how can an instrumental musician or listener say that a piece of instrumental music "talks" about a specific topic?
#2
Yes, The 'proper' musical name for it is a leitmotif.
Basically, John Williams' (composer behind Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.) created Darth Vaders theme, right?

Well, Vader is a dark, haunting character. Thus, William's corresponding score was dissonant and very 'heavy' sounding compared to say, the Cantina song, etc.

Just pick a topic, think about how it makes you feel, or how people think about it. And try to translate it into music. Another great example is Dream Theater's "Erotomania"

'tis a wordless song about a manic sex addiction. And it's a masterpiece.
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#3
It can be. Obviously when creating instrumental music you have to set a tone, a mood, and get your idea's across in a VERY creative way. A lot of Joe Satriani songs are actually about something or another. But even with lyrics it is up to interpretation.
#5
My favorite example... Look up Holst's "The Planets."

oh, and this
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzOb3UhPmig
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#6
Music is.. Saying the unsayable, it can be about something but it's most likely different thing for everyone listening. Listen to something like Sigur Ros or Beethoven and there will be things you recognize like a slow build up to victory or triumph, and agitated to calm.. But is that really it? It's just sounds, you're brain connects them into something totally different than some other person's does and I don't think you know what it is. And because of that it can be so much more personal and deep than songs with lyrics, with the logical brain jumping in the way. (I'm not saying either way is superior though..)

You can change a person with sounds interpreting emotions just as well, though differently, as with words. But you can't tell a story with sounds.
#7
Answer: YES
I bet nearly all instrumental tells a story/tale

A few exampled I can think of are:

'The Witch and the Saint' by Steven Reineke for Concert Band
It's about two twin sisters born in 1588, and follows the story of them growing up, one becomes a nun, the other is thought of as a witch.

The Edexcel A Level Composition brief!
Titled 'A Passing Storm' we had to compose a piece to tell the story of the storm.
#8
Yes, it can specifically be about something. Symphonic poems and tone poems are programmatic music without lyrics. Specific verbal ideas are carried out through leitmotifs, textures, gestures, etc. A good example is Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.


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Threnody was not originally about that at all. The piece was originally called "Study for String Orchestra", meant to showcase extended techniques of string instruments in the form of a sonata. After it was performed, someone suggested that it sounded like a nuclear explosion, and so Penderecki gave it a more interesting title.

...modes and scales are still useless.


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#9
You've just figured out the entire basis around Impressionism and Expressionism. Granted, those are more about colors than stories or ideas, but same basic principle.

Look up some Tone Poems. "Don Juan" is one. I know Liszt created some.

Short answer, it's entirely possible. However, what you think you're putting into the song might be completely different than what the listener gets from it.

But that's the beauty of music isn't it?
#10
And if we're bringing up tone poems, this intro is fairly recognizable: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KOtj4ofACc&feature=related

Of course, 2:41-4:21 is in my opinion the greatest part of the piece. It's been scientifically proven that the bit at around 4:06-4:10 is the greatest thing to ever happen on Earth.
#11
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And if we're bringing up tone poems, this intro is fairly recognizable: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KOtj4ofACc&feature=related

Of course, 2:41-4:21 is in my opinion the greatest part of the piece. It's been scientifically proven that the bit at around 4:06-4:10 is the greatest thing to ever happen on Earth.



At 4:37 there's an ugly E played by a horn or something. I wonder if it's intended or not, but it threw me off

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#13
The practical example: a girl. How do you feel when you're with her? Good right? Try to hear something in your head that fits what you feel. EXAMPLE: Rubina by Joe Satriani is well Rubina is his wife man! But Super Colossal is probably him feeling awesome.

It's really having an idea and developing it through music
#14
It can easily mean something, sadly most modern bands who try and pull it off just aren't musically skilled enough.
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#15
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You've just figured out the entire basis around Impressionism and Expressionism. Granted, those are more about colors than stories or ideas, but same basic principle.


I'm not really sure it's one of the defining features of either... Programmatic music is something that has been around pretty much since at least the Baroque period, if not earlier. It really took off in the Romantic period, and IMO, is one of the few things that really separates late Classical and Romantic music from each other. Obviously, as Impressionism and even Expressionism are deeply rooted in the Romantic tradition, then Programmatic elements can easily be part of these styles. But Programme is not the basis of either.

But Impressionism, Expressionism, and even Romanticism are retarded labels that are almost impossible to define, and even harder to place, music from about 1780 onwards is simultaneously more continuous and more fragmented. I know this is paradoxical, what I mean is, the fragmentation of styles that people normally describe in the 20th Century actually started far earlier, and yet continuity between all of them is far greater than the labels would suggest.