Do I Need to Learn an Instrument to Write Songs?

Do I Need to Learn an Instrument to Write Songs?

4 Ways to Make a Song When You Can’t Play an Instrument

So you want to write your own songs. Maybe as a form of self-therapy; or maybe out of a sheer love for listening to music…or maybe you just want to write a smash hit and get famous. No hate, bud. Regardless of the “why?” behind your drive, I want to help you meet your goal of writing songs.

“But, Deane”, I hear you chirp into my ear hesitantly, “I have no idea how to play anything! How can I write a song when I don’t know an oboe from an elbow?” Just relax, you don’t need to be a master instrumentalist to make music. Today I will teach you the poorly-kept secret on how you can make music without your own instruments.

So Do I Need to Learn an Instrument to Write Songs?

No, you don’t need to go buy and learn a musical instrument in order to write a song. In reality, you already have a free instrument attached to your body: your voice. You can get starting writing songs with just that. It is strongly recommended that you do learn a polyphonic instrument at some point in your life, but there are ways around it for now.

The three most essential elements of a song are:

  1. well-written words,
  2. a catchy melody, and
  3. rhythm

And you can accomplish all of those with your own body. Does your voice work? Then congratulations, you are in possession of a completely free but probably temperamental wind instrument.

Method 1: Use Beats

This may be the most well-known poorly-kept secret: just buy a beat online and sing or rap over it. Some producers will give beats away for “free”, but there’s usually some drawbacks to free beats (paid instrumentals, too). Depending on the beat producer, instrumental tracks in a WAV format can be had for as little as $10. Some producers will give you a deal or a freebie if you message them and ask. And if you know how to build a long-term business relationship with a beat maker you like, the savvy ones will offer you discounts for repeat patronage.

Before I move to the next method, I want to give you a few examples of popular songs that came into being using the pre-made track method. First, have you ever heard of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X? It became one of the most viral songs on TikTok, with over 140 million streams. Lil Nas X bought that beat online for $30. For those of you who don’t listen to rap, look to Clairo: her hit song “Flamin Hot Cheetos” was made from samples that she got off Splice. Yeah, for real. It’s a dope song, though; the original upload has over 21 million plays on YouTube.

Method 2: Find a Co-Writer Who Can Play Instruments

Maybe you want something more personalized than a pre-made instrumental beat. In that case, there are a lot of musicians out there who don’t want to sing, don’t like to sing, don’t write good lyrics, or all of the above. You can find one of these musicians and partner with them: you write the lyrics and sing them, the other guy/gal makes the music and bam: Music duo!

By working with an experienced musician, you can make more specific requests and provide input on the harmonic content of the songs. If you prefer singing in a certain key, your instrumentalist can compose for your voice in that specific key.

Just keep in mind that you’ll have to split the royalties if your songs make any money, and you’ll want to agree on the split percentages before you ever start on the first song.But it’s not uncommon for a lead singer in a band to do the songwriting but never pick up a guitar or bass.

There are too many examples of this to list here…that’s why I wrote an entire article just listing a bunch of famous singers who can’t play an instrument.

Method 3: Make A Capella Music

Don’t knock a capella music. There are entire genres of music that only use the human voice—such as glee clubs and chamber choirs. It is entirely possible that you write an entire song using just overdubs of your voice to complete the melody, harmony, and even the rhythm.

Let me show you a few examples of this. First, go listen to this a capella song by MonLee Mane:

Yes, the lyrics are non-sense; it was written by a YouTuber who was goofing around with Fiverr challenges. Regardless, that is a fully-fleshed song using nothing but MonLee Mane’s own voice.

Next, take a look at this song titled “Coin Laundry” by Lisa Mitchell:

Ignore the intro on the keyboard. Pay attention to the first verse and chorus. She is using only her voice to play the harmonies and the bass; the only non-vocal instrumentation is a digital drum machine. For the chorus, she is adding counterpoint “oohs” with her voice again, and you can hear her imitating the sound of a hand shaker with her mouth. If Lisa can do it, you can try it too!

The last example is “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap:

This song is almost a capella; yes, she is using a keytar to manually select the harmonies, but did you know that there are software apps that can automate this effect on your voice without needing a keyboard? Well, now you do:

Method 4: Use Score-writing Software as Your “Instrument”

I know how to play guitar, bass, ukulele, a bit of piano, and the kazoo (barely). Regardless of that, some days I’m lazy and compose music entirely from my scorewriter program. If you learn some basic music theory online, you can do it too.

There’s an entire category of programs called scorewriters that are made for…you guessed it, writing scores (I.E. music). Score just means sheet music, but you don’t need to know standard notation in order to use many of these programs. If you understand how to read guitar tablature, you can use software like Guitar Pro to write and arrange all of your MIDI tracks and export them into whatever program you record your audio in.

But I’ll let you in on another one of those poorly-kept secrets: you can “score” music right inside your digital audio workstation (DAW) too. Most DAWs have a built-in MIDI note editor, sometimes called the “piano roll”. From this piano roll view, you can manually enter midi notes and build your own chords, bass parts, drum patterns, etc. It’s how a lot of beginner beat makers get their toes wet in the world of music production.

The Downsides to Not Learning an Instrument

Now just because you can make a song without learning an instrument, does not mean it’s the most advantageous method to craft music. You are doing yourself a disservice if you never put effort into an instrument, because it not only makes you more experienced—it can literally rewire the circuits in your brain. Here are just a few of the disadvantages of not learning an instrument:

  1. You may end up relying on other people to make your beats, thus sacrificing creative control
  2. Backing tracks or beats can get expensive, especially when you need one for every song you write. And extra especially if you want the exclusive rights for that beat/track.
  3. If you program your own midi notes into a DAW instead, it’s going to consume a lot of time
  4. And if you compose inside a score-writer or DAW, you’ll eventually need to shell out cash for a good synth or a VST to make the music sound realistic, but…
  5. Synths and VSTs cannot replicate every instrument realistically (I’ve tried several guitar VSTs, and every one sounded fake compared to me just playing my own cheap guitar).
  6. If your computer is your instrument, then you’ll always need to boot up/sit at your computer when you get a song idea (how viable is that when you’re away from your desk or at a friend’s house?).
  7. If you want to perform live, or at a friends house, or for your family, you’ll always need a backing track or an instrumentalist to accompany you.

The Benefits of Learning a Polyphonic Instrument

On the flip side, I want to point out a few reasons why learning an instrument, specifically a polyphonic one, can improve your songwriting. To clarify, polyphonic just means that it can play more than one note at a time, such as the: guitar, piano, ukulele, or mandolin. The benefits of learning an instrument includes:

  1. You can compose anywhere that you can carry your instrument
  2. By learning finger-style on guitar or ukulele, you can experiment with melodies and harmonies all at the same time on just one instrument. This capability is also standard-practice on piano.
  3. You can play at open mic nights, parties, or even the laundry mat if you feel like it without the need for scheduling an accompanist. You’ll never have to rely on other people to accompany you…you can be your own band
  4. Greater creative control is at your fingertips: if you think it, you can (at least try to) play it!
  5. Cheap instruments are much higher quality than they were even five years ago, so you can save a lot of money in the long-run by playing your own guitar/piano, rather than buying a dozen beats a month or a dozen software synths. My go-to electric guitar is an $80 Harley Benton Stratocaster copy with a set of $50 pickups installed. (And honestly, the original pickups sounded fine but I already had the extra set of pickups in my room and I like to mod my gear.)
  6. Making your own backing tracks will save you money and hassle when it comes to royalty splits…if you’re the only composer on the song, you don’t have to split the royalties at all

In Conclusion

If you don’t know how to play an instrument yet, don’t let that stop you from making music. You are now armed with a slew of instrument-less tactics for composing songs. Someday when you’re ready, or you have more time and money, you can get your first cheap-o off-brand guitar and expand your musical prowess. Until then, don’t forget to practice on the one instrument you already have: your voice!

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