Question about the instrument you write a song with

Question about the instrument you write a song with

Stay with me here…
This thread assumes you work the way I believe most people work when writing a song (although would love to hear differently).
I assume it would look like the following, either:

  • You composed the music on an instrument like a piano, guitar or similar
  • You write the lyrics and then used an instrument like a guitar or piano ( or loops or whatever) to compose the chord structure around that.

In my case, I find that the instrument I composed the song on seems to be in the song in its entirety. Besides maybe a short intro (like a drum beat) or outro, that instrument plays from start to finish. I’m not including small stops etc…

I am wondering if anyone else does the same. I have meant for several years to make an effort to pull that instrument out in sections or possibly either all together in some songs, but it never happens.
In the case of vocals, I’m assuming the first instrument after the vocals would be the one that carries through the entire song.

In case you are not following, here’s what I’d like to do one day:
I write a song on guitar, typical structure. But… once I’ve added all the layers of overdubs and other instruments, perhaps there would be no guitars until, say, the second chorus onwards.

Or is it that that instrument has to be there (for you I mean, not as a rule per se as we all know there are no rules!) to carry the song the whole way.

I would love to try an experiment one day where I write a song on one instrument, record the other layers and then remove that instrument completely and see how the song feels without its founding instrument.

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That’s usually been the case for me too. Typically guitar, but if I started on piano/keyboard it usually became a keyboard driven song.

In reading numerous interviews over the years with famous Rock or Pop/Rock musicians, I was surprised that on relatively heavy guitar driven songs they said they initially composed them on piano. Or sometimes acoustic guitar. I think they just used what was handy for melody and chord structure, and then it developed in the studio with a producer. Maybe a lot of musicians learned on piano as kids, and that’s what came more naturally for composing, or perhaps it’s just a bit more elegant than plugging into a Marshall stack and having the neighbors call the police. :beerbanger:

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I’ve used both methods to write songs but the second method I’ve only used very rarely, probably because as a listener I have much more interest in the “song” rather than the lyrical aspect. What I mean is that I value the the song and the melodies much more than the lyrical content. Also, writing melodies and vocal phrasing, prior to writing lyrics, tends to allow you more flexibility to create catchy, interesting vocal lines. Lyrics are are much more rigid usually. For instance, if you have a lyric line with 12 syllables, you’re stuck with those 12 syllables and you have to fit them into your song in a manner that doesn’t make the words sound odd. Not sure if I can really explain it without giving an example… Hmm, let me think.

Ok, this might not be a good example BUT, imagine this, or try this with a few songs that you are very familiar with and you know the lyrics to. Pick a song and change the rhythm/ groove of that song. I do this sometimes with straight ahead 4/4 signature songs…Take a 4/4 signature song and change it to a 3/4 …Now sing the vocal, lyric, melody to the 3/4 version of the song. Your vocal phrasing will be altered and some multi-syllable words will have weird accents and the phrasing will feel quite different. Sometimes words with the accent on the first syllable will land on the second syllable…There would have to be some reworking, regrooving of the lyrics to make them sound good, with some songs.

When I first began writing song I was using electric guitar and acoustic guitar, but for the vast majority of the time I was using an upright piano. I was writing hard rock, heavy metal, cock rock, classic rock-styled songs on piano. There wasn’t much in terms of guitar riffs, even though guitar was/ is my main instrument. I liked writing on piano because I could get a lot of volume and a somewhat percussive groove happening on the piano and I could sing really loud…(I’m sure my neighbours heard my noise often). I later recorded many of those songs using electric guitar, bass and drums. So the basic pounding piano playing that birthed the song was replaced with new guitar riffs. In the last many years I’ve used a few different instruments and methods for songwriting. Those instruments would be acoustic, bass, vocals, drums and simply creating the idea in my mind before even touching an instrument. Very recently I’ve written quite a few songs that were birthed in the bathtub. I just start making riffs, lick or vocal melodies…or sometimes drum grooves in my head…If I like the idea that I’ve got I repeat it over and over in my head so that I don’t forget it…When I get out of the tub, I race down to my laptop and open up Audacity to record it, either by humming it or by transposing it to the acoustic guitar to then be recorded. Sometimes I’ll be laying in the bathtub and I get what I think is a good musical idea…Let’s say a guitar riff first, then I think of how that riff will interact with the drum groove, and maybe a bass groove. Then I might get a melody with some stupid lyric or occasionally a catchy lyric…Then I might get another section of the song…and sometimes a 3rd or 4rth part…At this point I’m pretty excited about getting out of the damn tub so that I can get to my laptop before I lose any of the ideas in my mind. I wrote a song in this manner on Feb. 18th of this year…I titled it “Feb. 18, 2021” at first,…but now that I have the lyrics for the chorus I’ve since changed the name. I have a ton of Reaper projects that have dates for names. Gets kind of confusing trying to locate Dec. 13, 2018, from all the other December dates from other years, sometimes! :cold_sweat: But, yeah, you have to have a recording device nearby when you’re writing, especially if you choose to write just in your own head, without instruments. I’d suggest trying this method of writing. It’s a fun experiment. Just this year I’ve written at least 4 songs this way and I find them to be very quirky, catchy and interesting (not sure if others will agree with my opinion though).

Another method I’ve used for writing is the …“unconscious method”…or maybe a better term would be the “subconscious method”. It’s not intentional on my part, but it happens in 2 ways. First I should say that ideas tend to come to me MUCH more at night or in the evening. My mind becomes much more focused and also excited at night, so I tend to be revving in high gear even after I turn out the light and lay my head on the pillow. I have had quite a few occasions where I get what I think is a good song idea before crashing out for the night. Most of the time , even if I’m really tired, I’ll jump out of bed and open up my laptop and Audacity to record my idea. I’ll either hum the idea and also smack out a percussive beat to show the kind of rhythmic background I want the song to have or/ and I’ll transpose the song idea from my head to the acoustic guitar and record that in Audacity…I’ll always state the date, the exact time and most of the time I’ll give a verbal explanation of the way I want to approach the song.

The most recent way I wrote a song happened yesterday morning. I dreamt it. I woke up after 4 hours of sleep from a dream in which I was playing acoustic guitar, while sitting in my car…ah never mind, it’s a long, weird dream, like most dreams are. I’ll spare you the insignificant details. Haha. Anyway, when I awoke, I really didn’t want to get up , go downstairs and record what I had dreamt…but I wanted to see what kind of shit my subconscious/ unconscious mind writes, so I got up and recorded it. This dream composing has happened a few times but it’s not a regular thing with me. There have been times where this has happened and I figured I would be able to remember the song later without recording it, so I’ve gone back to sleep, only to wake up later and realized I can’t remember it correctly…and many times I’ve forgotten the tune altogether.

I would say that the instrument that initiated the song doesn’t need to be there unless of course there’s a particularly strong role it plays in the feel of the song and the song loses something as a result of taking it away. Great guitar riffs might not sound so great when transposed to a piano or violin…, although, it’s possible some of those guitar riffs will sound even cooler…It’s definitely something to experiment with.

I relate to that very much. That’s how I used to write.

My mother forced me to take piano lessons as a kid. I hated it, but it taught me some very useful things that I’ve used in relation to guitar, writing and music understanding in general.

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I sit watching the tele and when a commercial comes on, I grab my acoustic that is propped against a coffee table. I seek out a chord arrangement that is unusual or that I can’t recollect ever playing before.

I watch more tv and then run to the studio and record about 15 seconds as not to forget. The next morning I listen and start singing to it. If the words don’t flow right away i go to notes stored away. They are usually one liners that I have heard standing in line at a bank of filling my car…etc
I only have acoustic, electric guitars and a bass. No keys or midi…pretty raw

I have not been successful in the music trade, so don’t use this method. ha ha

That kind of reminded me of that Smithsonian interview with Eddie Van Halen (EVH). I have time-stamped it where he talks about he and his brother Alex’s mom making them take the piano lessons. Listen for at least 5 minutes if you can. The whole thing is 55 minutes if you get the chance to listen to it all at some point. While Eddie is famous for his guitar work, per the story he started out on drums, and of course then took the Van Halen sound in a keyboard heavy direction a few years into their music success.

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I do that, but I don’t think it’s good. I get too easily stuck on one sound and feel like I have to build around that sound rather than build a song and use the instruments to support the song.

Shower for me but can completely relate. I do the same but my litmus test is NOT to record or take note of it. If I can think of it again later in the day or the next day, it stays and usually gets worked on. If not, I take it as an idea that was good but not good enough.

I guess this is what I’m asking though. Even though it was technically composed in your head, if you choose to transpose that as a guitar, does that guitar play the whole song from pretty much start to finish?

Yes, but it’s not so much about the method of creating the song, but more that if you grabbed that acoustic and created a song out of it, is that then your instrument that the final song gets recorded with, and more specifically, does that guitar start and play all the way through the song?

My thoughts exactly, yet it seems to be a very hard pattern to break.

I ask this because I am currently working on a project for a friend who is writing a school musical. They’ve written 8 songs, most of which were written and then played on keys or guitar. We recorded that main instrument and the vocals and I am charged with adding all the other instrumentation and mixing. It has been a blast, but I have found it WAY easier to pull that main instrument out of the mix in parts because I hear the song differently with it not being mine, and I didn’t write it so I am not tied to that instrument or playing of it.

I’ve watched that a few times last year. It’s a really interesting and personal interview. Really cool! I’m so glad that EVH preferred guitar because he created some awesome music with it !

I think most of the time I’m thinking of guitar-based music when I write my stuff, so that is the instrument that often drives the song, though I have some songs where the bass guitar takes more of the attention and I might have the rare song where piano might take the lead. The instrument that initiates the song doesn’t necessarily play throughout the song though in my case it probably does, more often than not. I don’t find that to be limiting because I could easily choose a different instrument to be more prominent than the guitar, if I really wanted to. I just have a strong preference for guitar based music, especially when it’s rock music of any sort.

I suspect part of your difficulty with taking the main instrument out of your own songs is that you have a particular affiliation or love for the sound of that instrument…Also, we tend to use certain instruments in a traditional manner. Electric Overdriven guitars for rock songs, piano for ballads or classical pieces, loud bass for funk, etc. We don’t have to follow those traditions but it does seem to be almost like an unconscious reflexive choice.

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In my case I don’t have much choice. I’m a reasonable (rythm) guitarist and drummer. Don’t ask about my keyboard abilities. I love piano (both acoustic and electric) but if you can only play 4 or 5 chords in C or perhaps G that’s not going to lead to a song with anything interesting. So yes, I write all of my songs on (acoustic) guitar, and indeed find it difficult to exclude my accoustic from the mix, if even for one bar. I would love to write completely different music, orchestral or completely synth based. I’ve tried once or twice but the results were pretty much dissasterous. But I won’t give up.

For the past 25 years or so I write most of my (sparse) songs when I’m on holiday. I really need to take a step back from my work to have enough room in my head for what it takes to write a song that is worth its while (to me anyway). During the last 10 years most of my songs were written using my Baby Taylor travel guitar! My main acoustic (a Taylor 420) has never been used to write a song, only to play it.

I actually did that on accident with one of my favorite songs. When I was 15 or so I became a big Dylan fan. I got hold of a copy of all his lyrics (till then, this was 1971) and tried to play the songs. Problem was: I only knew a few songs from the radio, I only had the one Dylan single myself. And his music would only come by now and then so I had to remember it from that moment and then figure out the chords and melody from memory. That’s how, amongst others I learnt to play ‘Just like a Woman’. And it turned out I got most of it right… except that Dylan wrote it in 3/4 and I played it in 4/4/, and to this day I still do. My wife thinks I do a better ‘Just like a Woman’ than Dylan did, so I have no reason to change this and it’s become one of my stock songs to play at (solo) gigs. No one has ever complained ;). Maybe I should record it and ask you guys to give your opinions :cold_sweat: . Never thought of changing the timing on purpose though. It’s an interesting idea! Maybe I’ll change the timing of all of the covers I play live and get noticed :grin: