The definition of acoustic music has changed. At one time, acoustic simply meant ‘un-amplified’. It now also means, in a performance sense, music that is generated by acoustic instruments that have had their sound enhanced by some sort of amplification device (mics, PA and/or pickups).

That generates the following question. If a pickup is installed in an acoustic instrument, does it change the definition of that instrument to ‘electric’? How about the use of a microphone to enhance the sound of the instrument ? Is a hollow-body electric guitar a hybrid acoustic, or a hybrid electric ? See the definition problem ?

What do you think ?

If I may, I present the idea that any instrument that can organically generate enough sound to be heard in a small or medium-sized room, without artificial amplification, is an acoustic instrument, and can produce acoustic music.

Or how about this, a solid body guitar will produce a faint sound if play un-amplified. It can be heard in a subdued way if played in a small quiet room. But add additional noise (a television, radio or vocal conversation) and it’ll soon just become what we describe as faint ‘white noise’. It now needs electric amplification to make enough sound to be heard. An acoustic guitar however, is built around a hollow box of thin wood which projects sound out of its sound hole into the space around it, thus organically amplifying the sound, only needing artificial amplification to increase its sound level to reach a larger crowd. Thus one is classified as an ‘acoustic guitar’ and the other, an ‘electric guitar’. The electric guitar doesn’t function as a musical instrument without adding electricity to power its pickups.

Slap or knock a solid board, then do the same to a hollow wooden box. Both produce a sound, but one is basically a dull ‘thunk’ while the other is a much louder ‘bonk’ or ‘boom’, the sound a drum might make. Does that make the hollow wooden box an acoustic instrument, and the solid board not ? Well, if you’ve answered yes, then what would you call two wooden dowels used as percussion ? Aren’t they a version of an acoustic instrument ?

It makes me think of the age old question of “which came first, the chicken, or the egg”. Who really cares ? I contend that acoustic music is music that is generated by the following:

  1. The human voice
  2. Any stringed instrument that produces a sound that can be heard audibly
  3. Two pieces of anything that can produce an audible sound when slapped or rubbed together
  4. Even a piece of string strung taut between two objects, and then plucked, that can be heard audibly
  5. Any combination of the above (and much more)

Does any of this matter ? Maybe ‘acoustic’ just means ‘not too loud’. Does James Taylor make acoustic music ? How about Eric Clapton ? Would you define the Beatles as making acoustic music ? Gets kind of complicated, doesn’t it ? How about a bluegrass group that performs with microphones ? Are they still making acoustic music ?

I contend that acoustic music is mellower in its sound level, and usually performed with acoustic instruments (instruments that can produce sound without artificial enhancement). What say you ?