Songwriting Tip: Be Clever With Your Song’s Instrumentation

Don’t let instrumentation be an afterthought in your songwriting. Use it as a creative tool.


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GuitaristThere are many hit songs from the past several decades that have used the same, or at least similar, melodies in both the verse and the chorus. Blues-based songs, like “Hound Dog” (Lieber & Stoller) are a good example. Back then, they worked well because the melody was usually catchy, repetitive and memorable, and because the song itself was short. A few verse-chorus repeats, with solos inserted here and there, and you’re done.

But these days, when songs are a little bit longer (3-5 minutes, as opposed to 2-3 minutes for hit songs of the 50s), you may need to do something more to keep a song with a single melody interesting. That’s where instrumentation comes in.

There are many important differences between verses and choruses that often don’t exist if your song uses only one main melody. All the basic principles of having the verse melody pitched lower than the chorus, with stronger chorus progressions, etc., don’t really come into play. (Though there’s no reason you can’t harmonize the same melody with different chords… a topic for another day).

What you do with your song’s instrumentation can strengthen and enhance your song’s basic structure. Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Use fuller instrumentations in a chorus, and possibly in the bridge as well. Bigger chorus instrumentations can compensate for the similarity of melodic range that comes from using the same verse and chorus melody.
  2. Once an instrument is heard, dropping it out of the mix entices people to keep listening. That’s because an instrument that’s dropped (to reduce song energy) is usually brought back at some point (to build energy back up). A short way to say this is: allow instrumentation to match the current energy level of your song. So try dropping instruments from your final mix. Great places to do this is at the beginning of the final chorus repeats, or in the verse before the final chorus.
  3. Explore different performance techniques for each instrument you use. Your accompaniment may simply be a guitar, but that one instrument has many different ways it can be played: strummed, picked, over the fingerboard, near the bridge, with a pick, with the fingertips, palm muting, 6-string, 12-string… use your imagination. Every choice is an “orchestrational” decision that will strengthen your song’s structure.
  4. Use implied chords to reduce song energy. An implied chord means that part of the chord (usually the root) is played, while other notes aren’t. That chord root, along with the melody note, “implies” the full chord name. The benefit of implied chords is that the music becomes quieter and less energetic – a perfect technique for verses. Then you simply repeat the melody for the chorus with full chords. (Many hit pop songs use this technique).
  5. Sketch out a map of your song’s instrumentation. You don’t need very many instrumental ideas for a song. In fact, too many ideas can make a song sound as cluttered as having too many melodies or chord progressions. But having 3 or 4 different instrumental approaches will often be just right. So here’s an idea: Colour-code each idea, write out your lyric, then colour your lyrics according to the instrumental accompaniment you plan to use.

That point #5 above can be an important way of making sure you use instrumentation in a sensible and calculated way. By colour-coding your instrumental ideas, then applying those colours to your song’s lyric, you get to see your ideas at a glance.

Don’t let instrumentation be something that happens randomly in your songs. Give it serious thought, because good instrumentation can enhance a song’s structure and make it succeed where it would otherwise be quite unremarkable.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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