If you have been reading the Songwriter’s Secrets series but don’t play a musical instrument you’ve probably been wondering if it is even possible for you to write a good song without an instrument? While it’s true that writing a song is easier if you play guitar, piano, or other instrument, playing an instrument is not a requirement for being a good songwriter.
Being a good songwriter requires:
- A good musical ear
- Connecting with the audience
- A mastery of language
- Understanding musical styles
- Positive collaboration
If you noticed, these are all skills that you can have without playing piano or guitar. In fact, as a percussionist myself with some basic piano/vocal skills, I have found that technology can help me overcome hurdles that my keyboardist friends don’t need to worry about, like developing convincing harmonic structures.
In this article you will learn songwriting techniques that will help you with or without an instrument. If you do play an instrument, read on for some helpful tips. If you do not play an instrument, you will discover there are great ways to develop your songwriting skills.
Many artists find that they have some of their best musical ideas when they are alone. Maybe you can keep your lyric journal by your bed at night to capture midnight inspiration. Take a walk outside and enjoy the quiet solitude. Spend time people-watching in a busy city and observe human interaction. Go to an art gallery and take in what each painting tells you. Watch your kids or grandkids, or remember a cherished moment with your spouse. Promise to set aside a one to two hour block per week for concentrated songwriting.
Here are some apps to help the songwriter on the go:
Quickly record and upload your musical ideas. Share them quickly with friends and through social media for immediate feedback.
An immediate four track mixer on your smartphone. This is especially handy if you want to record melody, background, and harmony quickly.
This simple app helps you find both direct and creative rhymes. A great way to spice up your song.
This free app helps find chord progressions for your song. Build musical phrases and playback popular progressions.
Jot Down Lyrics
Carry a notebook with you at all times and jot down events – both the mundane and the significant – throughout the day. Write down lyrics, rhymes, and ideas. If you like to sing your melodies as you develop your lyrics, then use your smartphone to record your voice, especially if you are not sure if you will remember the melody later.
Using a simple recording device, practice singing your lyrics and developing rhythms and harmonies. The chances are, even without playing an instrument, you can sing your melody.
If you are used to singing multiple parts or have a little bit of rhythm, you can even develop your song more fully by recording different parts under your tune like background vocals, vocalizations and improv, or a simple rhythm by clapping your hands or beatboxing. By pulling together these elements of a song, you might discover that you don’t need an instrument to put together quite a snazzy arrangement.
For this exercise you will need to record using a program like Garageband or Audacity, or maybe an app like Fourtrack mentioned above. You can also ask a friend to help you record or let you use their equipment if you want to record with more professional gear.
Here’s a simple process you could follow:
- Practice singing your melody and memorize the lyrics
- Record your melody
- When you have a recording that you like, add a second track
- In the second track sing a simple background vocal
- Add a third track, adding in light percussion by clapping, beat boxing, stomping your feet, or picking up a shaker
- Continue adding tracks until you feel like you have a rich arrangement
Share your track with your friends and get their feedback!
As you edit your lyrics, it is time to separate out the verses, chorus, and bridge to your song. There are many different patterns that you can follow. This is one of the more popular song structures:
Your song structure depends on the musical style you choose, your lyrics, the number of verses, and how you “hear” the song playing out. Sometimes you might have to work around practical needs. For example, if you have an amazing drummer, you might want to add an optional drum break, or if your singer likes to improvise, maybe you end the song with a single line sung a capella i.e. without instruments.
Don’t know which section is the chorus? Read through your lyrics. Which lines come back a second or third time? That is probably your chorus. For example, in Jingle Bells, the section that starts “Dashing through the snow/On a one-horse open sleigh” is the verse while the repeated section “Jingle Bells/Jingle Bells/Jingle all the Way” is the chorus. Usually you will find the title of your song in the chorus too.
This is probably the most difficult aspect of songwriting for those that do not play an instrument, but it is not impossible. I will admit that as a percussionist, I often hear the rhythm and bass lines of a song well before I will ever hear the actual harmonies. In many ways, I feel like I have to figure out a song almost ba