What Do You Call the Music in a Song?

A Quick Start Guide to Beats and Instrumentals

If you have ever gone looking for music you can sing to, then you’ve likely found a variety of terms and not understood the difference between them all. A common question that gets asked is how you should refer to the music of a song without the vocals attached to it.

Maybe you’re looking for a karaoke track or even a piece of music to use for your own songwriting. Allow me to clarify some terms regarding vocal-less music so you know what to search for and how to find the kind of music you want.

What Do You Call the Music in a Song?

The music in a song that plays behind the main vocals is called the instrumental, beat, or backing track. All three terms can mean the same thing, but each may be more common in one genre or situation over another. Let’s look at each term on it’s own and see where each differs in style and use.

What is an Instrumental?

An instrumental is usually a musical recording without lead vocals added in. This can include the backup vocals though, especially if they are a form of wordless singing. However, the term is also used to describe pieces of music that don’t include vocals at all, such as incidental music or post rock jams. Just as the word “song” is used to describe any music composition with lyrics being sung, the word “instrumental” can mean any complete music composition without the use of lyrics or voice.

Karaoke tracks are also referred to as instrumentals: a karaoke track is where the lead vocal of a hit song is muted from the full mix and just the background instrumentation is exported.

What is a Beat?

Beat is a colloquial term meaning an instrumental; it is mostly used in hip hop, rap, and pop music production. In the study of music theory, beat means the unit of time or pulse of a composition—but that is not how it’s meant in this case.

Beat music is a form of background instrumentation composed without lyrics or vocals to start with, but usually with the intent of a singer or rapper adding them later. They are primarily composed, produced, and published by independent beat-makers (i.e. beat producers) who then sell or lease the complete mix to vocalists or record labels.

So, there is a small difference in connotation between “instrumental” and “beat”: if you were to search the word “instrumental” on YouTube you’ll likely find versions of popular songs without the vocals in the mix, but if you search the term “beat” you will find instrumentals that do not have a song already associated with them. Instrumental implies music for a published song, beat implies music for making a song.

Sometimes, a beat is treated as a stand-alone style of incidental music (usually devoid of any vocal parts) meant for relaxation or background noise while studying, working, etc. Unlike ambient or classical tracks made for the same purposes, beat music is defined by it’s use of and emphasis on rhythmic percussion.

Specific genres of this persuasion include: lo-fi hip hop, chill hop, indie beat, downtempo, and chill-out.

What is a Backing Track?

A backing track can mean the same as an instrumental or beat, however the term is most commonly used when talking about practice music.

By practice music, I mean simple instrumentation intended for a solo musician to play in the background so he/she can improvise over it. If you play an instrument capable of lead voicing—such as guitar, saxophone, flute, etc—then you can use a backing track written in a specific key to play through scales and develop your ability to compose melodies.

So while a beat is meant for writing a finished song to it, a backing track is meant mainly as a throwaway composition so you can learn how to write a song (or a song’s epic guitar solo, at least).

Backing track can occasionally be meant to talk about the instrumental of a complete song, but often that usage of the phrase is reserved for sound engineers working a live show’s soundboard or a studio producer. If you are just searching for background music online, typing in “backing track” will yield you practice tracks most of the time.

When Should I Use Each Term?

As you can see, each term means “music without words” but in very different contexts. Here’s a quick summary table of when you should use each one when searching online for music:

TermUse it when you’re looking for:
Instrumentalthe karaoke track (i.e. backing music) of a popular song, or
non-voice music for casual listening (i.e. study music, relaxation music) that does not have percussion in it
Beatmusic to which you can write a song and sing/rap over, or
casual listening or “study” music with drums (i.e. lo-fi hip hop music)
Backing Trackmusic in a specific key for practicing guitar, piano, saxophone, etc.

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