Unplugged vs Acoustic Music – What’s the Difference?

Acoustic music is music created using acoustic-based instruments and not amplified methods. Unplugged music is amplified but stripped down to an acoustic version.

Unplugged music and acoustic music are two terms that refer to music made by acoustic instruments. Having this common feature, they are two types of music with different characteristics.

There is a lot of confusion when it comes to the terms “acoustic” and “unplugged”. This is why people generally think that they refer to the same type of music. Understandably, people use these terms interchangeably. Why? Because unplugged music is acoustic, acoustic music is not a kind of unplugged music.

It’s better to have a more detailed look at these two terms’ definitions.

What is Acoustic Music?

Nowadays, the music world is heavily reliant on electronic instruments. Before this takeover, however, musical instruments were only acoustic.

Instruments aren’t naturally amplified, so, symphony orchestra instruments are by definition acoustic. Naturally, all classical music falls under the acoustic music genre.

String, wind, percussion, and unclassified instruments without electronic amplification, are acoustic instruments. Acoustic music is either spontaneous or in a studio, using one or some of these instruments.

Acoustic music was exclusively acoustic before electric instruments. By electronic, I mean when the violin, guitar, organ, and synthesizer came along to redefine it.

History of Acoustic Music

Acoustic music played an important role in the creative and cultural development of people.

People first used their voices to funnel air through their vocal cords and make music. This was the only method known as music at the time. Naturally, the flute came along. It is the first instrument introduced to the world.

The entire music history also refers to acoustic music history. When electronic instruments came into play, the term “acoustic” gained importance in the music world. This change brought about types of instruments, music, and performances.

A harpsichord was the first musical instrument to incorporate electricity into its construction in the 18th century. Afterward, the developments in electric instruments followed.

In the 20th century, many instruments such as guitar, piano, and violin were reclassified as acoustic. You can probably see why. Because electric instruments were becoming more and more popular.

Use of Acoustic Music

Acoustic music is commonly accompanied by a gentle singing style. Singing conveys strong emotions of the story told through the song.

Singers usually perform with their voices and a single instrument like a guitar or piano. Acoustic music will have a distinct tone depending on the culture and place in which it is performed.

It’s been a long time since electric instruments came about. There’s a lengthy history of societies that have handed along their history through music as it was a way to tell stories.

Music with an acoustic, raw sound is frequently associated with classical songs. Additionally, you see electronic musicians incorporate unplugged versions into their performances.

What is Unplugged Music?

Unplugged music is produced and played on electronic instruments like an electric guitar, piano, MIDI, and so on. but is reformed so that it may be performed with acoustic instruments, as the name implies.

Unplugged music is merely a rearrangement. In other words, it is the unplugged version of a non-acoustic song. It is literally not plugged in.

Unplugged music aims to idealize electric-based songs of singers with an acoustic arrangement and to see what will come out. It’s an intriguing effect that gives the music a new personality.

The term “unplugged” is used in today’s society because of the tremendous popularity of MTV Unplugged. This show is like a way of celebrating these songs with the audience in modesty.

History of Unplugged Music

MTV Unplugged was the first show to popularize the term “unplugged” in 1987. Although, there was evidence of these performances that dates back as far as the 1960s.

It wasn’t uncommon for rock bands to experiment with acoustic tunes in the 1960s. This was a time when rock music became immensely popular and continued until the 1980s.

MTV Unplugged introduced world-famous performers like Elton John and Aerosmith in 1989. After that, well, the show became phenomenal. It attracted many people as the acclaimed “electric” musicians performed their songs acoustically.

Several well-known groups like Nirvana and Collective Soul began playing unplugged versions of their songs in the 90s. This paved the way for the term “acoustic rock.”

After 2000, the show changed its name, adding No.2.0, and presenting fewer performances. Today, you can still find the unplugged performances of famous musicians.

Differences between Acoustic and Unplugged Music

An acoustic song is written for acoustic instruments. An unplugged song is written for electric instruments but was edited down into acoustic form.

Acoustic music mostly uses an acoustic guitar or acoustic piano and no other instruments or effects. This is why it creates a more natural sound. An electric song frequently uses an electric guitar, bass, midi keyboard, or synthesizer. But, the electronic elements are stripped and performed on acoustic instruments. Hence, the term “Unplugged”.

Acoustic music’s history began when people started making sounds with their voices. Unplugged music, however, was born in the second half of the 20th century.

Unplugged music is a kind of acoustic music, while acoustic music is not a kind of unplugged music.

Famous unplugged performances

Elton John – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me (MTV Unplugged, 1990)

Eric Clapton – Running On Faith (MTV Unplugged, 1992) 

Chris Isaac – Wicked Game (MTV Unplugged, 1995)

Alicia Keys – If I Ain’t Got You (MTV Unplugged, 2005)

Placebo – Every You, Every Me (MTV Unplugged, 2015)

a-ha – Take on Me (MTV Unplugged, 2017)

Summary

Unplugged and acoustic music are not the same. Acoustic music has existed since people started making sounds with their voices. Unplugged music, however, has existed since rock musicians started to experiment with their songs in the 1960s.

Acoustic music is originally written for acoustic instruments. Unplugged music, however, is rearrangements of electric music made for acoustic performances. Acoustic music is not a subgenre of unplugged music, while unplugged music is a subgenre of acoustic music.

Arda Tuncer is a music producer, composer, songwriter, arranger, and performer. She releases music as part of the music duo, Kronik Leila. She has worked and collaborated with some prestigious orchestras around Europe, while also holding University positions as music theory professor and music research assistant. Arda studied music theory and clarinet at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and completed her degree at the Conservatory of Strasbourg in France.

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