So you’ve written a melody for your song…but now what? Most music has more than just a voice to it. In this guide, I’ll explain the four main musical elements you’ll need to make a backing track for your tune.
- What Do Songs Need Other Than Melody?
- Song Components Depend on Style and Genre
- How Do I Make Music For A Song Without Playing an Instrument?
What Do Songs Need Other Than Melody?
Besides melody, most songs will need some accompaniment (usually a backing track or beat) to make them sound complete, unique, and full. But the number of instruments and type of rhythm in your accompaniment will depend heavily on the genre of music you make and the style you want to embody.
In this guide, I’ll cover the generic parts of a successful backing track as well as more detailed instrumentation recommendations for specific genres.
What does accompaniment mean? Accompaniment refers to instrumentation that adds harmony and rhythm in support of a main melody. It could be as simple as a guitar or as complex as a full orchestra. But, regardless of the number of instruments involved, it’s meant to simply fill out the sound of the song in two important ways (that I already mentioned but I want to reiterate them):
We’ll look at standards of accompaniment based on certain sub-genres a little later.
The 4 Components of Music Accompaniment
First, let’s break down the four main components to a backing track. These music elements are pretty general and cover most genres of modern music (pop, rap, rock, etc). The four main accompaniment components are:
- Chords (including actual chords, broken chords, and chord factors)
- Beat pattern (usually played by drums, but not always)
- Sonic fillers (things that add interest to the backing track but are generally superfluous to the song) backup vocals, wall of sound, atmospheric pads, reverb
Chords are the most important (and largest) element of a backing track or accompaniment. They are also the easiest way to supply harmony.
When talking about “chords”, I’m really referring to two aspects of composition:
- Writing a progression of chords that match the melody and solidify the song’s key
- Choosing the instrument(s) that will play the chords and arranging them in the mix
In simple terms, you want to pick a set of chords (that match your melody) and decide what you’ll play those chords on. Keep in mind that chords don’t always have to mean full major or minor chords. You can add partial chords to a track in a variety of techniques, such as:
- Full Chords
- Broken Chords (Arpeggios)
- Chord Factors
By full chords, I mean chords where the notes are all played at the same time. For example, if you played a C major chord on guitar and strummed all the strings at the same time, causing the full chord to sound.
You could simply have a guitar or piano play full chords along with your vocal melody. All I mean here is you pick an instrument to sound all the notes for each chord simultaneously.
Broken chords are where you only play a portion of the chord at one time. This is usually done in one of the following manners:
- Arpeggios – this is when you individually play each note in a chord, and you play them in an ascending or descending order.
- Fingerstyle Travis picking – where you pluck the individual notes of a chord in a repeated pattern on guitar
- Carter Family picking – a fingerstyle technique where you play the root note separate from the rest of the chord (this can be done while playing guitar or piano).
Chord factors are simply the individual notes of a chord. These notes usually have specific names depending on the part of the chord that they make, like the tonic note, the third, the fifth, etc.
What I mean by playing factors is that you pick a specific note from each chord to play in the backing track rather than the full chord. For example, you may have a synthesizer play just the root notes of each chord.
This is a great way to accompany a melody without giving away all the goods. Instead of playing whole chords, you let the listener’s ears imply the rest of the chord. It’s an easy way to introduce intrigue to your song.
Now let’s look at the processes of writing progressions and choosing instruments in a bit more detail.
Writing a Chord Progression
A chord progression is just a set of chords you play in sequence (that is, you repeat them one after another throughout the song).
So the first step in adding harmonic accompaniment to your melody is to pick a set of chords to play during the song. You can pick as few or as many chords as you like. Furthermore, your song can use the same progression in every section or you can change the progression between verses, choruses, and bridges.
Here are some of the most common ways progressions are used in popular genres:
- Progressions usually consist of 3 or 4 chords. Blues music may use 2 or less chords, while jazz may include 5 or 6 chords in a single progression.
- Modern pop and rap normally use only one progression throughout the entire song. This has become more common as sampling has grown in popularity. If you go this route, then your sections (verses, chorus) will usually be separated by changes in drum pattern and/or adding more instruments during the chorus.
- Traditional pop and rock often features one chord progression for the verses and another progression for the choruses. Bridge sections may re-use the progression from the chorus, verse, or change keys entirely (key changes were very popular in 90s pop and alternative rock).
Choosing Instruments for Chords
Now you need to pick the harmony instruments that will appear in your backing track. This will be dependent on several factors, including:
- What genre you are making,
- Which instruments or synth presets you have available, and
- The mood of the music
Some instruments are more common than others. It’s rare to hear a tenor banjo in a hip hop song. Polyphonic instruments often work best. If you want to learn more about the best instruments for songwriting and composition, then check out this article.
In general, here are the most common instruments for composing and playing modern music:
- guitar (acoustic or electric),
2. Beat Pattern
Next comes the beat, by which I mean some percussive elements. Your melody and harmony will probably already have rhythm. But most genres of popular music also feature a percussion section that supports the melody and harmony’s underlying pulse.
In many cases, the beat is played on a drum set. But that doesn’t mean you must add a standard drum kit to every track. Stripped-down songs and emotional ballads may sound better without any percussion at all. Alternatively, you can fill out the percussion of your track with bongos, stomp boxes, hands clapping, or even a water hose:
Let the emotional tone and style of your music dictate how many drums you add to any given composition.
In most situations, the drum kit will repeat one or two patterns throughout the song. It’s totally possible to use one drum pattern through an entire song and just cut it during certain sections to catch the listener’s attention.
The complexity of the percussion is dependent on the genre, with hip hop and rap-inspired pop featuring a lot more drum fills than your average indie rock song. A simple indie pop feelgood bop may only use a kick, snare, and hat playing standard 4th or 8th note patterns. An electro or trap beat, on the other hand, may have physically impossible 32nd note snare rushes or hi-hat fills.
The importance of the bass line varies greatly by genre. R&B tracks would be lost without a bass groove. But folk songs may lack a bass instrument entirely.
At it’s most basic level, a bass section is meant to support the harmony. More so, the bass is like a bridge between the harmony and the percussion: it follows the dominant tones of the chords but with the rhythm of the drums.
Many bass lines simply follow the root notes of your chords.
But the bass can also play counterpoint melodies that complement the chords. Eric Judy (the bassist of the indie rock band Modest Mouse) often did just that. The bass can also be used for fills, playing through pentatonic scales alongside the chords.
(the bass line does not follow tonics or play in the lowest register, but instead introduces a counterpoint progression underneath the guitar)
(Examples of pentatonic runs to use as fills)
Your bass line doesn’t need to be played on an actual bass guitar either. Here’s an article all about alternatives to buying and playing an actual bass guitar.
4. Sonic Fillers
The fourth element of a song is the most optional of them all.
Sonic fillers are extra musical tidbits added to a track that make it interesting but are completely superfluous to the melody and harmony (and usually rhythm, too). I call them “sonic” fills because they’re basically meant to beef up the frequency bands of your song where the main melody and chords have left space.
This section comprises musical additives like:
- Backup vocals and gang vocals intended to make the melody sound louder,
- Atmospheric warm pads, or heavily-reverbed string sections that have the same effect,
- Extra instruments following the melody or chords but in a different octave or timbre,
- Ornamentation or fills that occurs between lines of lyrics
Song Components Depend on Style and Genre
The number of elements you add to your melodies will change based on the style and genre of your songs. And there’s no need to include all 4 elements into your music, either. Simplicity is often advantageous; adding too many instruments or noticeable fills to a song can make it sound muddy or unfocused.
In the following sections, I want to outline common ways that these 4 elements appear in various genres. This is merely an overview of genre conventions (that may even seem cliche). Feel free to vary your own instrumentation and composing as you deem fit.
- Chords – acoustic guitars, sometimes electric guitars (especially Telecasters) or ukulele, and occasionally piano (see artists like Birdy, Taylor Swift).
- Beat – sparse percussion, the guitar part may carry the rhythm of the song. If there are drum parts, then it may only feature an acoustic kick and snare, a stomp box, or a cajon.
- Bass – may not be present. If so, try an acoustic bass guitar, electric bass guitar, or the low end of a piano.
- Filler – backup vocals that support the main melody, violin or a string section that add depth
- Chords – electric guitars, acoustic guitars, piano, synth samples; playing straight chords or riffs
- Beat – drum kit, usually a standard drum pattern. Sampled digital kits can stand in as well
- Bass – bass guitar, piano low end, or a synth (sine wave, square wave)
- Filler – additional guitars playing broken chords or riffs, backup vocals, synthesizer riffs
- Chords – electric guitar, occasionally some piano or acoustic guitar
- Beat – standard drum kit; electronic drums are less likely in rock genres
- Bass – bass guitar most frequently, but you may get away with a droning synth bass
- Fill – extra guitars layered throughout the mix, synth pads possible or string sections
- Chords – acoustic guitar, ukulele, piano, maybe some clean electric guitar
- Beat – digital kits and drum samples are more prevalent, though acoustic drum kits can appear in more straight-forward tracks
- Bass – bass holds less focus, try electric bass guitar or a synth
- Fill – reverb effects are common, as well as synth strings
Lo-Fi Hop Hop
- Chords – piano is very common, followed by jazz guitar, acoustic guitar, and synth bell pads
- Beat – 808-style digital drum kits and samples are prevalent
- Bass – 808 bass presets on a synth, possibly some funk bass licks or slap tones
- Fill – Foley sound effects like vinyl noises, chopped vocal samples, low-passed pads, maybe even horns or choir
Alternative Hip Hop
- Chords – less important to the overall mix, but may include piano, strings section, or a synth (most notably pluck pads and strings emulation pads)
- Beat – 808-style digital kits or boom bap samples, the kick and snare will probably get emphasized
- Bass – 808 bass, legato mono synth lines, or possibly bass guitar evoking R&B styles
- Fill – Chopped samples of any variety, synthesizers
How Do I Make Music For A Song Without Playing an Instrument?
If you don’t play any instruments, you can still make or find music for your song/melody by using:
- pre-made beats,
- software synthesizers, or
- collaborating with other musicians
And consider this guide if you want to learn an instrument but you’re not sure which one.
The most important part of a song is it’s melody, but even a good melody needs some solid backup. The accompaniment of your song can be broken down into four elements. You don’t need to use all four in every track, though. Feel free to experiment and go minimalist whenever the tone of the song calls for it.
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