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Are you a musician with a desire to create an extraordinary album? Something that goes beyond individual songs and takes your listeners on a captivating journey? Maybe you’re wondering, what is a concept album? Or, maybe you’re ready to make one.
What makes a concept album?
While there’s no standard definition of what a concept album is, there are several elements that set a concept album apart from its traditional counterparts. If a traditional album is a collection of songs (Revolver by The Beatles is a stellar example), a concept album might revolve around a central theme (The Suburbs by Arcade Fire), tell a narrative story (Tommy by The Who), exhibit a cohesive stylistic approach (Time Out by Dave Brubeck), or be tied together by a unifying mood (In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra).
Types of concept albums
Let’s explore these different kinds of concept albums.
A central theme
Some concept albums are built upon a central theme that serves as the foundation for the entire musical journey — lyrically, musically, or both. This theme can be a singular idea, emotion, or even a social/political commentary. The theme serves as a guiding force, shaping the lyrics, melodies, musical passages, and overall atmosphere of the album.
Pink Floyd’s seminal rock music album from 1979, The Wall, explores themes of isolation and disillusionment, reflecting on the barriers that separate individuals from one another. The central theme of the album influences every song, from multiple angles, resulting in a cohesive and thought-provoking work that goes beyond the genius of any of its individual songs.
Many concept albums tell a story, with each song carefully arranged to create a coherent flow that allows listeners to immerse themselves in the overarching storyline. The narrative can be linear (The Wall also fits this description), non-linear, or opaque and abstract.
Consider Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, which takes the listener through Lamar’s experiences growing up in Compton. The album presents a vivid narrative that unfolds across the tracks, inviting listeners to get a street-level view of Lamar’s hometown of Compton.
This kind of concept album’s success lies in its ability to create a seamless connection between the musical and lyrical aspects. The songs complement each other and may feature repeating melodies, motifs, or leitmotifs — thematic musical passages associated with a character or situation — that recur throughout the album.
Take Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Every song contributes to the album’s mood of heartache and introspection. The lyrical themes of lost love and longing intertwine with the melancholic melodies, enhancing the emotional resonance of the album as a whole.
In some concept albums, the artists introduce characters that play a significant role in the narrative or symbolize different perspectives. In the best examples, these characters evolve and grow throughout the album, adding depth and dimension to the music.
David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a good example of this. Bowie created the androgynous rock-star character of Ziggy Stardust to explore themes of identity and alienation. The character’s journey and experiences unfold through the songs — and continued into later albums and Bowie’s stage persona — taking the concept and expanding it beyond this album’s introduction.
A cohesive stylistic approach
These kinds of concept albums are unified in their (often experimental) approach to making music. Consider Dave Brubeck’s landmark jazz album Time Out, in which every song is written and performed in an unusual time signature. Or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, which took group improvisation to an extreme.
How to write music for a concept album
Creating music for a concept album requires careful planning and a deep connection to the central theme.
- Start by brainstorming the concept. Once you land on an idea that resonates with you, consider the emotions, stories, or messages that can be conveyed through your music and lyrics. For example, if you want to explore the notion of social justice, your concept could revolve around advocacy, inequality, activism, or human rights. Of course, the concept that you explore over the course of an album should be something that genuinely resonates with you and aligns with you as an artist and a human being.
- Refine the central theme. Once you have a general concept, refine and solidify the central theme that will guide your songwriting. This theme will serve as the backbone of your album, providing cohesion through a narrative or conceptual framework for your songs.
- Develop your characters. If your concept album involves characters, spend time defining their personalities, motivations, and roles within the narrative. This character development will add depth and relatability to your songs, and may present opportunities to use musical motifs, keys, or vocal styles that associate with each character. Explore their backstories, struggles, and character arc. As you write your songs, keep the character’s perspective in mind and allow their experiences to shape the lyrics and melodies.
- Create the songs based on your theme/narrative. With the central theme and characters in mind, begin crafting your songs. Explore different musical styles, melodies, and lyrics that align with your concept. Experiment with the narrative structure, using transitions, and work your recurring motifs to contribute to the coherence of the album.
Consider the emotions and stories you want to convey within your concept. If it’s a story-driven concept album, make the songs progress logically in order to advance the narrative.
How to market a concept album
After putting your heart and soul into creating a concept album, it’s essential to effectively market your work. Here are some strategies to consider:
- Compelling cover art is key. Your album cover is the first visual representation of your concept album that potential listeners will encounter. It can be simple, though it should provide a glimpse into the theme, atmosphere, or story contained within. Express your ideas to a talented graphic designer and create a cover that captures attention while reflecting the essence of your concept. Consider the iconic cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. The prism design and use of colors hint at the album’s exploration of complex themes of birth, life, and death.
- Engage with your audience. Be active on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to share behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of your record, play into the album’s thematic elements, and encourage discussions around the central theme. Interact with your followers, respond to comments, and continue the exploration of the themes on the album in your other communications.
- Collaborate with influencers and music bloggers. Reach out to influencers and music bloggers who you think align with your concept album’s theme or genre. In fact, this might be an opportunity to connect with forums and people outside of the music world. Offer them early access to your music and invite them to share their thoughts and reviews. Collaborating with influencers can help expand your reach and introduce your concept album to new audiences.
- Live performances and multimedia experiences. When touring to promote your album, consider structuring your live show to complement your album.
So go ahead, unleash your creativity, and embark on the exhilarating journey of making your very own concept album. When you’re finished with the writing, recording, and mixing, Disc Makers will take you to the finish line with professional CDs and vinyl manufacturing.