What is a Concept Album and How to Write One
Many artists write a ton of songs and eventually pick out the best ones and put them all on an album in a way that they flow well. This is totally fine. However, there are other formats for an album besides this.
One of these is the Concept Album, which is great for artists that want to create something that not only revolves around a theme but tells a story with many layers or expands specifically on a particular concept, message or idea.
What is a Concept Album?
A concept album is a type of music album that revolves heavily around a particular concept, message or idea. They often tell a story with multiple layers, characters, and a rich narrative.
Traditionally, a concept album is like a movie but in music form. The stories they tell can range across pretty much any topic but often revolve around sci-fi, fantasy, philosophy, psychology and other very heady topics.
Another way of doing it is to think of a concept and make every song a deep dive into different aspects of that concept. Like if you made an album on the concept of being schizophrenic, then made every song about a specific symptom. This still counts as a concept album, even though it’s not necessarily telling a story.
So as you can see these are the types of songs and albums meant to make you think.
Examples of Concept Albums
You will probably recognize the albums below since a lot of them tend to be some of the artists’ most recognized work, and have gained a sort of legendary status. It’s their attention to detail and massive effort that have made these as iconic as they are today.
The Wall by Pink Floyd
This album was created as a movie in 1982, with little dialogue, which would be narrated by the songs and their lyrics.
It tells the story of a jaded rockstar driven to insanity by the weight and pressures of fame and the traumatic events in his life. Each traumatic event becomes a brick in a metaphorical wall he builds to shelter himself from the outside world.
The topics of this film and album include war, criticisms of an oppressive school system, Pink’s relationship with his overprotective mother and his relationship with a wife who he realizes is cheating on him, drug use as a result of a rockstar lifestyle and more.
To say the least this dude’s life is quite a mess, but although the topics may seem dark and depressing they are told in a way that is actually really artistic, entertaining, and hooks you with catchy songs, switching between scenes using animation and live action, and lots of surrealist imagery.
What makes it a concept album: The entire album was meant to work in tandem with the movie. All the songs work to create and support Pink’s story as well as create a world of its own for the audience to experience. Roger Waters has mentioned the idea for this work came as a result of the band feeling disconnected from their audience as they became more and more famous. He also mentions that the art created for the film was a huge inspiration in the songwriting as well, and in many ways the visual art helped create the music and the music helped to create the visual art. Last I checked, this album was Pink Floyd’s most successful album after Dark Side of the Moon.
Crack the Skye by Mastodon
Mastodon created a few albums based around the concept of certain elements. This one in particular represents the element of Aether, which refers to the souls and spirits of all things. Because of this, the album covers topics such as astral projection, out of body experiences, wormholes, and more.
Mastodon’s Brann Dailor (drummer) told the following to Billboard.com when asked what the story behind the album was:
“It’s about a crippled young man who experiments with astral travel. He goes up into outer space, goes too close to the sun, gets his golden umbilical cord burned off, flies into a wormhole, is thrust into the spirit realm, has conversations with spirits about the fact that he’s not really dead, and they decide to help him. They put him into a divination that’s being performed by an early-20th-century Russian Orthodox sect called the Klisti, which Rasputin is part of.
Knowing Rasputin is about to be murdered, they put the young boy’s spirit inside of Rasputin. Rasputin goes to usurp the throne of the czar and is murdered by the Yusupovs, and the boy and Rasputin fly out of Rasputin’s body up through the crack in the sky and head back. Rasputin gets him safely back into his body.”
As you can see it’s quite the trip and Brann says that a lot of it is metaphors for personal things.
What makes it a concept album: The album supports the concept of Aether, not just in what the story is about (dealing with astral travel and such) but also in the sound of the music, as it has a very mystical and psychedelic sound to it. The songs also work together to take the audience through the protagonist’s story.
Metropolis Pt2: Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater
This is Dream Theater’s first concept album. It’s also the first album that features Jordan Rudess on keyboards.
It tells the story of Nicholas, a troubled man undergoing past life regression therapy.
While in an induced trance he sees a girl named Victoria Page and a life that feels familiar to him despite never having been there. Nicholas believes Victoria is haunting him to reveal the truth about her murder.
The album continues to unravel this story and has samples of the character’s voices, clocks, and therapist hypnosis commands, which are meant to give you a sort of cinematic experience as you listen to the songs and learn more of the story. These types of ambient samples are common in concept albums.
What makes it a concept album: Just like the last two, there is a story being told. Also, the lyrics and the music lead you through the story from beginning to end and the samples help to create a more vivid experience.
This is just to name a few but honestly there are a LOT of concept albums out there and not all of them are from progressive rock bands. Here’s more:
- Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie
- Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by The Flaming Lips
- American Idiot by Green Day
- To Pimp a Butterfly and Damn by Kendrick Lamar
Do Concept Albums Have to be Rock?
You might’ve noticed in the last section that many of the albums listed are either rock or metal. Mostly prog bands too. These are some of the first albums that come to mind because this is what I grew up listening to but there are many other albums like that in different genres.
Let’s be clear though…
Concept albums do not have to be rock, and can be any genre as long as they revolve heavily around the same concept, message or idea.
You don’t necessarily need to have a very clear cut story with a hero and adventure etc. As you can see, the albums by Kendrick Lamar are still concept albums because they revolve heavily around concepts of social criticism rather than a traditional story.
How to Write a Concept Album
Now that you have some idea of what it is, we’re going to discuss how you can write one if that’s your goal.
Decide on an Album Theme
Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your theme? What do you want to talk about? Here’s a few ideas:
- Social Justice
- Mental Health
You just need to get a general theme going and then you can narrow down how you talk about it.
You could choose more than one, like how in Pink Floyd’s The Wall they talk about several themes like War, Mental Health, Love, Stardom and Fame, etc.
Try not to choose too many though and know which is your primary one. For The Wall, you could argue it was Pink’s declining mental health.
Create a Story Around that Theme
Many concept albums do create a story so if you want to go this route then check out the below where we look at a few different options.
There are different types of stories and creative writing has given us different categories of conflict that stories can be about. Try one of the below:
- Man vs Man – someone vs someone else.
- Man vs Himself – someone vs themselves. Inner conflict.
- Man vs Nature – someone vs a force of nature like an animal or natural disaster.
- Man vs Society – someone vs a tradition, institution, law, or other societal construct.
- Man vs Technology – someone vs a machine or technology. For ex. Evil artificial intelligence.
- Man vs Supernatural – someone vs a supernatural being. Ex. ghost, demon, etc.
- Man vs Destiny – someone vs their fate, goal, or luck of the draw.
Most stories will fall into one or more of these types of conflict so if there’s more than one that’s ok as long as you know your main one.
It’s important to know the conflict in your story because it will likely dictate everything. Every part of the story will be in relation to dealing with and striving to resolve the conflict or falling prey to it.
Create Characters and Bring them to Life with Backstory
If you’re making a story for your concept album then you’ll probably need some characters like Pink was for The Wall, or like the paraplegic was for Mastodon’s Crack the Skye.
It’s important to give your characters life with a backstory,
Both you and the audience should understand who the story is about.
- What are their motivations?
- What are their struggles?
- What experiences have made them who they are?
- How are they different at the end? How are they the same?
If your album doesn’t go that deep into the character, then the audience at least needs to be somewhat invested and understand the character’s motivations for why the story matters.
For example, it’s easy to understand why a paraplegic would want to astral travel to get around like in Crack the Skye, and that makes it easier for us to go along for the ride with him.
I think a great place to base characters on is real people in your life. This could be people you know very well or just people who you’ve come across regularly. You may not know who they are on the inside, but you know what character they are on the outside and that’s enough to create someone similar for your story.
To this end, archetypes and stereotypes can be a great tool. For example,
- the bully
- the white night
- the king
- the mean girl
- the golden boy who wins at everything
- the tortured rockstar
- the ladies man
- the girl who hates everything
These types of characters can be very useful because they are so relatable. Not just that but your audience will likely understand them very quickly and then you can spend more time deepening the character instead of teaching the audience who they are first and then going deeper after.
Use Ambience to Establish Setting and Mood
As discussed further above, many concept albums use samples to establish setting, mood, ambience, etc. It helps the audience feel like they are not only listening to music, but they are in the actual setting where the story is happening when they close their eyes.
So think about the setting for your stories and what sounds you can use to place your audience there.
In Metropolis Pt2 Scenes from a Memory by Dream Theater there’s the voice of the therapist, there’s ticking noises from the hypnosis session, etc.
What setting does your story take place in? What sounds are there? Who else is there and what are they saying?
Use Recurring Sounds, Motifs, and Symbolisms
In addition to the last point you can also use the same elements you’ve used in one song, in your other songs. Maybe there is a melody that you can re-use in another song but as a variation or more developed. This can help it tie in to an earlier song and gives it a sense that the two are related.
You could also use sounds as symbolisms. Maybe a certain effect can be a character.
For example, see the song below called Here to Tell by Johanna Warren where the singer is having a conversation through the vocal melody with a spiritual being. (this isn’t a concept album but the song uses the production to create a character.)
Both the artist and the spiritual being are the singer’s voice, but when Johanna sings it’s only one voice, and when the spiritual being sings back, it’s the same voice, double tracked in unison both on top of each other, giving it a more ethereal sound.
Create Visual Art for your Album
This is pretty important when you’re making a concept album because you really want to give as much as you can to your audience so they feel like they know and understand the world you are creating for them in your album.
Check out some of the art from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. As you can see, it really brings to life the world created between the music and the visuals.
Here’s some of the art for Mastodon’s Crack the Skye. It just gives you such a vibe, and then you listen to the music and take them both in at the same time and gives you a much better idea of the overall mood of the music.
Simplify as Much as Possible
As you continue to develop your concept and your story you might be tempted to overthink and overanalyze. It’s a big big tendency that many artists fall into.
So it’s very very important that at some point when you feel like you’ve got a lot of the main work done, you should really start to see what you can remove.
How can you trim the fat to keep only the most important parts?
You don’t have to dumb it down, but definitely trim the fat and be clear, so the audience doesn’t get lost or lose interest.
Integrate the Concept into your Live Performance
This one is optional really but many artists that have gone to the trouble of creating a world in their album do eventually bring it to the live performance as part of the show.
Decorate the stage like the setting of your story, have the people in the band dress up like the characters, have video running on a projector behind the band. All of these things can help bring your story to the real world in your performances. You put in all the work, you might as well go that extra step to make it as real as possible.
Wrapping it up
This type of record is awesome and I encourage everyone and anyone to give it a shot regardless of their genre. Everyone loves a good story and although it really is a lot of work, this is the type of thing that can take music to the next level of artistry.
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