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 backwards sometimes! I’ll pluck out the bass line and drumbeat underneath my sung melodies before figuring out the actual harmonic structure.
This is when it is helpful to know some basics of harmonic structure, like common chords for popular song styles. Ironically, most mainstream music is based on simple chord structures based on I-IV-V chords. For example in the key of C that would be the C-F-G chords.
→ Learn more about 3-chord songs
A common chord structure can be derived from the classical song Canon in D by Pachelbel. The actual chord structure for this song is as follows:
By listening to this quirky video by musician Rob Paravonian below, you can hear how knowing just this one chord progression can help you write a song in almost any genre:
Is it really that easy? Well, no. You need to develop some your chord listening skills to be able to sing over a chord progression even if you are not personally playing it on piano or guitar.
Other popular progressions include:
You can hear the V-IV-I progression in Sweet Home Alabama.
Here are some useful harmony secrets:
- Major keys like C Major or F Major are considered “happy” and convey a sense of joy.
- Minor keys like C Minor or D Minor are often used for a depressing and sad sound.
- Keys always want to resolve back to the original tonic chord (the I chord – or i in a minor key). So if your song is in the key of C, then you will probably end on the C chord to sound “finished”
- A key change is when you move from one key signature to another, like from major to minor. While you don’t always need a key change in your song, sometimes you might find it adds excitement
→ Learn more about Major and Minor keys
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is written in the key of C# minor and denotes a sad depressed mood.
Jam with a Friend
Music is a communal activity, and nothing is more fun that jamming with your besties. Arrange a night of jamming and it can quickly turn into a song writing session.
- Each person brings lyrics for one or two songs
- Choose a designated instrumentalist, like a guitarist or pianist
- Sing your song out loud without accompaniment
- Discuss your musical ideas, genre, and thoughts about the song
- Gradually work together to create a full arrangement of lyrics, melody and harmony
- Record your result
So you see, the process of writing songs is perfectly possible even if you don’t play an instrument.
Start with what you’ve got: lyrical ideas, hummed melody lines, some chord listening skills, and so on. Work with technology or with friends to flesh out the details and you can produce a full arrangement and recorded version of your song from scratch. Never let not playing an instrument hold you back in song-writing!