Writing Instrumental Music – Do the Same Principles Apply?

Without lyrics, other basic elements of song structure become more important in instrumental music.


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Kenny G - SongbirdThere was a time in the not-too-distant past when instrumental music was a bit more commonplace in pop music than it is today. “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures, “Wonderland By Night” by Bert Kaempfert, and “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, and Kenny G’s hit single “Songbird” – these are some of the tunes we think of immediately when we consider instrumental hits in the pop genre.

Besides Kenny G, other songwriter-performers have made their bread & butter mainly as instrumentalists: Floyd Cramer and Herb Alpert to name just two. But instrumental hits are rarer today.

The question is: what makes a good instrumental hit, and what are the factors involved in writing a good one? Does a good instrumental tune basically work the same way as a good vocal tune?“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle

The short answer to the second question is: yes. Instrumental music can be thought of as a “song without words”, and in that sense the same basic fundamentals will apply. There are no lyrics to factor into the equation, so in addition to the chord progression-melody partnership being crucial, issues surrounding basic instrumentation will rise in importance.

Because of that, the answer to the first question, what makes a good instrumental hit, is the same as what makes a good vocal hit.

For writing instrumental music, therefore, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Melody. An instrumental melody will have the same requirements that a vocal melody will: contour, and placement of a climactic moment being two important ones.
  2. Form. Writing an instrumental song will usually give you the same formal design options that vocal music will. So you can construct an instrumental to be verse-chorus-bridge if you like, or verse-bridge, or verse only. And as with vocal music, chorus melodies will usually be higher in pitch than verse melodies.
  3. Chords. The same principles of good chord progressions apply with instrumentals. Strong progressions, especially in the chorus, will make melodies more memorable, and remember that you won’t have lyrics for an audience to remember. So that partnership of melody and chords becomes all the more important.
  4. Instrumentation. An instrumental obviously requires that your players really know what they’re doing. Weaknesses in playing abilities is never good for any kind of music, but an instrumental implies that you’ve got something good to impart to your listeners. Moreover, you’ll want to consider using something beyond a standard guitar-bass-drums kind of instrumentation. To repeat, you won’t have lyrics for the audience, so all other song elements rise in importance.
  5. Climactic moment. In “Wonderland by Night”, it’s not hard to figure out where the climactic moment is. The same goes for “Songbird”, and even “Wipe Out.” So just as with vocal music, the placement of a climactic moment near the end of the melody becomes an important musical detail. As you compose your melody, keep thinking ahead to where the it will exhibit its most exciting moment. It’s an important part of making it memorable.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter

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