What is Chamber Pop music
Music genres are fairly loose by definition, and chamber pop is no different. For some listeners, it can be the sound of soft vocals with acoustic guitars and violins. To others, chamber pop can mean multi-textual soundscapes fusing orchestral sounds with electronic beats and edgy lyrics. Chamber pop can be all these things and more. So, how do we answer the question, What is chamber pop music?
For starters, chamber pop favors composition and inventiveness over commercial success. If there is one thing anyone can say from listening to anything under the chamber pop guise, it’s that the music does not conform to genre norms. Artists go above and beyond to invent new sounds and experiment with instrument choices and vocal harmonies.
Another common feature is the quasi-orchestral sounds some artists explore. Many artists use strings and orchestral wind instruments (think flutes, clarinets, and trumpets) to add color to their music. These instruments combined with a standard rock rhythm section (guitars, bass, drums) and vocal harmonies are often used.
More often than not, chamber pop artists spend a massive amount of time crafting their albums and being meticulous with the production process. Few chamber pop artists have made it to superstardom, yet they often maintain a rabidly loyal fanbase.
What makes a band or song Chamber Pop
Some say chamber pop is simple fusion or crossover music. But at a deeper level, it’s songwriting in the freest sense. Chamber pop is taking all of an artist’s musical influences and producing something new, unconstrained by traditions or genre.
We need to look back to the 1960s to understand what makes a group or song chamber pop. Most fans of the genre look back to the rock groups of the 1960s who expanded their sound by adding orchestral instruments.
The 1960s: Pet Sounds and Burt Bacharach
Examples of this include Brian Wilson’s work with The Beach Boys, particularly the (absolutely incredible) album Pet Sounds (1966). The album did better in the UK than in the US market, with many critics praising the album as an ambitious production with sophisticated lyrics. It was also reportedly influential for The Beatles during a very important time in their development as well.
Wilson pushed the boundaries of music production on Pet Sounds, experimenting with many musical ideas uncommon to the pop music of the time. This included using orchestral instruments, elaborate vocal harmonies, and using a theremin and other exotic sounds as well.
Burt Bacharach was another artist during the 1960s who developed the sound today known as chamber pop. His songs like “Arthur’s Theme”, “The Look of Love”, and “Close to You” all take the orchestral sound and weave it into a pop song structure.
For a full-circle experience, check out Burt Bacharach’s somewhat recent work with Elvis Costello. The song Toledo is a great example of chamber pop that almost crosses over into baroque pop or ork-pop.
The 1990s: Chamber pop’s resurgence
After a dip in popularity in the 1970s and 80s, the 1990s saw a resurgence in chamber pop. By this stage, the indie rock/pop movement grew in popularity, and chamber pop became a legitimate sub-genre in the indie universe.
Newer low-fi and electronic sounds mixed with acoustic rock and orchestral elements became the sound of a new generation of artists.
Bands such as Tindersticks, High Llamas, the Elephant 6 collective, and The Divine Comedy expanded chamber pop to new artistic levels, and popularity as well.
Well into the 21st century, chamber pop has continued to evolve. Bands and solo artists like Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Grizzly Bear, and Fleet Foxes have pushed boundaries in production quality and musical inventiveness.
What instruments are used in Chamber Pop music
No instrument is off-limits in chamber pop. The different instruments used can make defining chamber pop tricky at times, but certain sounds connect various artists.
The most common is the use of orchestral strings like violins and cellos. The strings can be a small ensemble or a 34-piece section. The standard rock rhythm section of guitars, bass, and drums is a common feature as well, though acoustic guitars and mandolins make more of an appearance than electric. Horns feature prominently, particularly flutes and clarinets, and brass sections.
Chamber pop artists have incorporated more synthesizers and electronic production into their music, particularly from the late 1990s onwards. Think of the soundscapes of Bjork or Animal Collective in these instances.
How producers influenced Chamber Pop
Very few genres need the creative input of a producer more than chamber pop.
As artists from the 1960s looked for a different sound, producers were hired to pitch and explore ideas. Most producers had many years of experience in music and had a classical music education.
One producer who made a huge impact on the development of chamber pop was Phil Spector. Spector (1939-2021) was a successful American record producer during the 1960s. His innovation with his “wall of sound” production style made him one of the greatest producers in pop music.
The wall of the sound approach used a layering of different instrument combinations, as well as doubling or tripling the same instrument in unison to create a fuller and richer sound. Spector’s Latin music and percussion influence made their way on to many successful recordings like “Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling.”
Another influential producer and composer from the 1960s that we can’t forget is Sir George Martin (1926-2016). Martin, often referred to as the “fifth Beatle”, helped shape the sound of the Beatles and propelled them into stardom.
Martin’s work with many artists developed pop music with his knowledge of audio recording, composition and arrangement, as well as his talent for bringing various musicians together to create unique ideas in the studio.
Chamber Pop artists you should listen to
With chamber pop being a broad term, there are countless artists and bands to choose from. Whether folksy guitars with sweeping strings or avant-garde electronic beats with emo vocals, there is a style to suit everyone.
Here are 10 artists you should check out to get you started:
Sufjan Stevens is a Grammy and Academy Award-nominated American singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois hit the number one spot on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart and is among the best examples of chamber pop. His music uses a wide range of instruments, and his themes dive into aspects of religion and spirituality.
Formed in Nottingham, UK, Tindersticks is an alternative rock band that became a prominent sound of indie rock and chamber pop. Tindersticks uses various instruments such as brass, bassoon, and vibraphone to name a few.
Their music appears in several films and TV soundtracks, and their best studio albums include Curtains and The Something Rain.
Breaking onto the music London music scene in 1991, Irish chamber pop band High Llamas has been one of the mainstays in chamber pop. Their music shows influences from the Beach Boys to bossa nova, and film music.
Starting as a pop band, High Llamas shifted their sound towards more orchestrated sounds, and their albums Gideon Gaye and Hawaii display their shift into elaborate soundscapes.
More of a collective of bands than one group, Elephant 6 covers a wide range of genres and explores different sounds with low-fi recording practices. The underground music collective was formed in the late 1980s, with some notable bands including the Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, and the Olivia Tremor Control.
Belle and Sebastian
Hailing from Scotland, Belle and Sebastian is a prominent indie-pop band whose albums have featured some of the best examples of chamber pop. Albums like Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, and The Boy with the Arab Strap reached the top levels of the UK charts.
Their music draws from a broad musical lineage, with generous amounts of Fender Rhodes, organ, and strings in the mix.
From Baltimore, Maryland, Animal Collective is an experimental pop band taking inspiration from many musical sources. Their music embraces electronic elements like sampling and looping, psychedelic rock, folk, and drones.
For many, Animal Collective is a driving force in chamber pop, with successful albums like Merriweather Post Pavilion and Strawberry Jam earning them high acclaim.
Arcade Fire is a Canadian indie rock band formed in 2000. They grew in popularity after the release of their critically acclaimed album Funeral. Albums such as Neon Bible and The Suburbs received Grammy nominations, with Neon Bible winning the 2008 Meteor Music Award for the best international album.
Arcade Fire is a leader in the related genre, baroque pop, with instruments like the French horn, xylophone and even the hurdy-gurdy adding to their eclectic sound palette.
American indie-folk band Fleet Foxes is one of the most popular groups in current-day chamber pop. Although their sound is mostly folk, they experiment with different instrument combinations and write nuanced vocal harmonies.
The albums Shore and Helplessness Blues have both been nominated for a Grammy Award.
Formed in 2002, Grizzly Bear is a mix of psychedelic rock, folk-rock, and experimental sounds. They rose in popularity from the release of critically acclaimed albums such as Veckatimest, Shields, and Horn of Plenty.
Grizzly Bear draws influences from the Beach Boys and Elliot Smith, Brian Eno, and many others while taking ideas from jazz and electronica as well.
American indie-folk band Bon Iver was formed in 2006, and by 2012, they had won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album for their self-titled album Bon Iver.
Bon Iver blends indie-folk and indie rock with layers of electronica. They experiment with various strings like banjos. And, they feature horns prominently as well. They’ve collaborated with artists such as bass saxophonist Colin Stetson.
Genres Related to Chamber Pop
Orchestral Pop, ork-pop, and symphonic pop
Orchestral pop, or ork-pop as it’s sometimes known, goes a step further than chamber pop and often arranges popular music to be performed by a full orchestra. The film scores of George Martin, John Barry, and Henry Mancini come to mind as popular music arranged with symphony orchestra instrumentation.
Many orchestras today like the Boston Pops are dedicated to performing all forms of pop music in the orchestral style.
Lounge music is the laid-back cousin of orchestral pop. Starting out as far back as the 1950s, lounge music is a less busy, laid-back style of music featuring jazz and Latin music influences. Lounge often uses simpler arrangements and fewer instruments.
In the 21st century, lounge music artists often make use of spare Deep House elements and analog synths.
Baroque pop came about in the 1960s when pop music artists and composers began to experiment with classical music ideas. The use of instruments like the harpsichord helped attach the label of baroque to this genre.
Baroque pop music is more complex and daring compared to standard pop with elaborate studio productions. The Mamas and the Papas, Paul McCartney, The Zombies, and The Left Banke are a few of the artists to check out to hear baroque pop in action.
What is Chamber Pop music: Final thoughts
Chamber pop, like all genres, can be tricky to pin down. We know what it’s not, but what it is is open to many interpretations. Many times, it’s really just a matter of someone saying, “Hey that sounds like chamber pop to me.”
It isn’t just rock or pop with a cello thrown in for good measure either. At least, we don’t think so. Chamber pop needs more.
Listening to many artists in this genre, we know that musical freedom and experimentation is often the main focal point of chamber pop. It’s the freedom from constraints, in terms of instruments or composition, that guides the music.
Chamber pop, more than any other style, is a journey of musical freedom.