Although a lot of songwriters have at least a basic sense of either the guitar or piano, there are still quite a few who rely solely on their voices when writing melodies and lyrics. While that’s a perfectly fine place to start, songwriters could gain a lot by expanding their instrumental horizons, especially when they aren’t singers themselves.
I write songs almost for a living in Nashville, so this article is aimed primarily at songwriters, but recording artists, vocalists, and even singing actors can all get something out of it, too. Here are just a few ways that learning an instrument can help improve your musical sensibilities when songwriting.
It opens up new opportunities.
I’m gonna be real: A lot of writers in Nashville are less than impressed if you don’t at least dabble on guitar. It makes you seem like you aren’t fully committed to your craft, and if you’re co-writing, that you didn’t come prepared to contribute. This kind of stuff can leave a bad taste in the mouths of writers you might be trying to impress.
Learning an instrument is a process, and for some, it takes a lifetime, but for the purposes of songwriting, it doesn’t have to take long at all. In fact, you don’t even need to be especially good — just good enough to get the tune across. If you’re writing songs for a recording artist, he or she may even ask you to join in on the track or onstage! This happened to me, and it really boosted my confidence.
With that in mind, here’s a quick video on how to learn to play the piano by ear, which takes no time at all, courtesy of our introductory course, The Building Blocks of Piano.
If you’re an artist, the ability to play your songs while you sing them gives you an edge. It always looks good to fans and labels alike.
One writer I know said it best. When he was asked why he eventually picked up the guitar and took singing lessons, he said, “I figured I might as well get my own songs out there. Nobody else was going to.”
It exposes you to different types of music.
It’s no secret that different instruments act as gateways to listening to and performing different genres. Pick up a synthesizer keyboard, and you may suddenly find yourself auditioning for an ’80s-style pop group. Learn the banjo, and country bands will be knocking on your barn door!
Of course, with universal instruments like the guitar and piano, you can easily begin to incorporate elements and styles from tons of other genres like blues, jazz, rock, funk, etc. Inevitably, this will make your songs more interesting, complex, subtle, and appealing to larger varieties of listeners and singers alike, which opens up tons of new opportunities.
When I first started singing, I was more of a rock ‘n’ roll singer. In short order, my teacher taught me to play and sing Sinatra, made me listen to show tunes, and even gave me some introductory pointers in opera. In no time, I was exposed to all kinds of different melodic and harmonic possibilities. After all, the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein are a far cry from U2 or Elvis. My songs haven’t been the same since.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “3 Common Broken Chord Patterns to Inspire Beginner Pianists”
New chord combinations will breathe life into your songs.
One drawback of playing only one instrument — or none at all — is overcoming the creativity rut when you start recycling ideas. Before I really started to expand my musical horizons, I had some favorite “go-to” chord and note combinations. During this period, many of my songs were just too similar. Chords are the emotional backbone of your song, so if they feel stale, so will your song. After picking up the guitar, I found new grooves, new chords, and a different artistic sensibility.
Today, I write with both, but it often depends on what type of piece I’m working on. Moody, atmospheric ballad? I’m going with the piano, hands down. Something that chugs along or rocks a little harder? Guitar all the way.
On the other hand, because you have fewer expectations with a new instrument, you can sometimes fool around a little easier without worrying if it’s “right.” By simply messing around and picking random notes to play, we often come up with cool, unpredictable melodies. The doors this process opens are endless.
If you’re at all serious about writing professionally, I can’t recommend lessons strongly enough. Many aren’t that expensive — $30 per half hour is about the average, but you can find them cheaper (and more costly, of course). Soundfly has tons of free courses to choose from if you’re looking to enhance your skills in a pinch.
If you’re interested in going deeper and learning things like how to approach songwriting more professionally, how to use harmonic theory to infuse your chord progressions with more emotion, or even how to orchestrate for a string section, our Mainstage courses offer in-depth videos with mentor-assisted instruction and won’t break the bank!