Can you write a song without knowing how to play an instrument?
Are you motivated to write songs, but you don’t know how to play an instrument? Don’t worry, because you can still write songs without using a musical instrument.
How is that even possible?
It may sound weird, but playing music on a musical instrument requires totally different skills than writing a song. Indeed, playing on an instrument (especially a guitar or a piano) helps, but the thing is, to play a musical instrument, you need to develop skills like rhythmic accuracy, muscle memory, coordination, and things like that. You don’t need any of these to write songs.
This is why there are tons of highly skilled musicians who don’t know how to write a song, and also there are highly successful songwriters who can’t play on any instrument.
In fact, one of the most successful songwriters of all time, Michael Jackson didn’t have a formal music education, and he couldn’t read or write music notation at all.
Although we can find tons of photos of MJ with an instrument, he was really not an instrumentalist. The way he created his songs is by singing and recording everything on a track – the melody, the bass line, and he even recorded the rhythm by doing beat-boxing. He made this only for demo purposes because later on, the musicians recorded the songs based on these drafts.
Listen to this recording on Youtube, this is one of his demo recordings:
There are many popular songs you hear on the radio that are not made by one, but several songwriters. Usually, there is a producer who creates the music first (usually a chord progression with some drum beats), and then he sends the music to a top-liner. A top-liner is the one who comes up with melody ideas. (It’s called “top-line” because the melody is usually on the top of the music.)
Many times the top-liner is a non-musician, a person who doesn’t know anything about music, they just happen to have a good sense to create catchy melodies.
These top-liners create many melody ideas, then the producers choose the best melodies and use them in the song. The truth is, you don’t need to be an instrumentalist, you don’t have to know anything about music in order to FEEL if the melody sounds good or not. You can create melodies (and obviously lyrics) without knowing ANYTHING about music or without knowing how to play an instrument.
But the melody is only one part of a song, you also need music for your song – at least a chord progression. Let’s see what are your options if you don’t know how to play a musical instrument, but you still want to write songs.
LEARN THE BASICS
You can learn the basics, which is commonly called “music theory” without using any instrument. Music theory is just a fancy word for the “lego bricks” of music. These are the scales, chords, intervals, and keys.
You can “get away” with not knowing anything about music, and you can still create good songs without learning music theory. But let me tell you why you want to learn it.
Imagine that you would live your life without seeing anything with your eyes. You would be in complete dark all the time, but you would still find everything in your house – you would use your other senses, mostly your hands, to find your things around the house. But you know how much easier to live your life with the sense of sight.
The same applies to music. Not knowing anything about music theory is like searching blindly in the dark. It works, but it’s so much harder and much more limiting. And after a while, you would probably figure out everything by yourself anyway.
So why would you struggle in the dark when you can “turn up the light”, by learning the basics of music theory? Why would you choose the slower and harder way, when you can learn what others have already figured out?
If you want to learn a hack to save time: learn the basics (intervals, chords, scales, keys), it’s really not that hard, and it helps a LOT in songwriting.
USE A DAW AND VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS
You can use a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to create your music so you don’t need to know how to play a musical instrument. A DAW is a software that is used by songwriters and producers to record, edit, and produce songs. The most popular DAWs are Cubase, Pro Tools, FL Studio, Logic Pro, Reason, and Garageband.
I play the piano for 30 years now, but when I write a new song, I spend 80% of the time using Cubase.
You can “program” your music into a DAW by using a virtual instrument. A virtual instrument is just a plugin that you use inside your DAW.
For example, you can use a virtual drum to create a drum track for your song. You can program the drum beats into the track (note by note) and the virtual instrument will play the music for you. You can have your own virtual drummer!
It works the same way with any other instruments. You can use a virtual piano, put the chords into the virtual piano, and it will play the chord progression.
Obviously, in order to know what to put into the virtual instruments, you need to learn the basics of music theory first.
There are hundreds of videos on Youtube which will teach you how to use these softwares, so you can learn everything for free. It will only take you time and effort. If you are watching free Youtube video tutorials, I would say it might take about two weeks to learn how to use a DAW.
USE ROYALTY FREE MUSIC OR BEATS
Another option, if you don’t want to build everything from scratch, you can use royalty-free music or beats for your songs. There are thousands of producers who sell these musics, and you can create your original melodies and lyrics on these beats.
You can find these with a quick Google or Youtube search, one example is Premium Beat, where you can browse between many genres.
However, there are disadvantages of using royalty-free music for your songs. First, and most importantly, songwriting is about creativity and making unique, original songs. If you use a royalty-free beat, you will use music that is used by thousands of other people.
It’s very convenient to use music that is made by others because you don’t need to learn how to make the music. But if your goal is to create completely original and unique songs, you need to find other solutions.
Personally, I would recommend using these royalty-free beats only to practice songwriting – for example, to create melody ideas. But I wouldn’t officially publish a song that contains royalty-free music.
WORK WITH A PRODUCER
Another option to complete your melody is hiring a producer who can create the music for you. You can find hundreds of producers online who are willing to make a beat for you to complete your melody ideas. This way your music will be 100% original.
One of the best places to find a good producer is Soundbetter. It’s a marketplace to connect musicians and producers from all around the world. You can even hire Grammy award winner producers on the platform! Though the more established the producer is, probably the more expensive he will be.
Of course, this can be more expensive than buying royalty-free music. But not necessarily. You can also search for songwriters and producers in forums or in Facebook groups. And you don’t necessarily need to hire the most expensive producers – unless you have a huge budget. It’s probably better to work with someone who is about the same level as you are. These kinds of people might not charge you anything, because they are also in the learning process, like you.
And by the way, there are producers who are looking for top-liners, so you just need networking and get in touch with people on these platforms.
When we say “producer”, we usually think about the genre EDM, or other EDM influenced genres – like anything you hear on the radio today. Electric drumbeats and synths. But maybe you prefer “traditional”, acoustic genres. Maybe you want to write country songs, or reggae, or just acoustic pop songs with real instruments.
If so, you can hire musicians – a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist – to record the tracks for your song. You don’t need to make any music notation for them. You can send them a draft recording of your melody with some basic rhythm, and they will know exactly what to play – if they are experienced musicians. Remember, Michael Jackson created his songs the same way!
One of the best places to find a musician is airgigs.com
COLLABORATE WITH OTHER SONGWRITERS
Many songs have more than one songwriter, not only one. So you can collaborate with other songwriters if you don’t like to work on your songs alone, or you don’t want to learn every aspect of the songwriting process. You can find other songwriters in online forums and Facebook groups.
There are also a lot of songwriting camps, where you can meet with songwriters, producers, top-liners, and other people in the music industry. Though most of these camps are probably on hold because of the recent global epidemic.
In these songwriting camps, they create small groups, for example, a group of 3 people: a top-liner, a lyricist, and a producer. And they work together to create new songs, or just to practice and develop their skills.
LEARN TO PLAY CHORDS
Ultimately, you CAN learn to play a few basic chords on a piano or a piano-like keyboard in a matter of a few hours. This is where your music theory knowledge comes in handy.
You DON’T need to be a pro-level pianist to be able to play a few simple chords with one hand!
If you know how to build the chords (you know, the “lego bricks” of music), you just need three or four of your fingers to push the keys. And think about it, how cool it will be to play some simple chords on a piano.
For this purpose, you don’t have to buy a giant acoustic piano for thousands of dollars. What you need is a small keyboard that you can plug into your computer with a USB cable. For example, this one here.
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.