A Challenge: Write An Instrumental SongMay 28, 2008 6:32 am Songwriting
For me, one of the hardest parts of writing a good song is coming up with decent lyrics for the dang thing. Oh, I can make up nifty chord sequences all night, jumping from one key to another, throwing in fancy suspended chords, finger picking, the works. But sometimes when I sit down with the pencil and the lyrics pad, the words just aren’t there.
So that means it should be easier to write an instrumental song, one with no lyrics, right? Well, not necessarily. First of all, some of the “melodies” that sound natural in rock or pop songs are not very melodic, simply following the chords up and down or occasionally even remaining on a single note. These songs are often “sold” mostly by the personality and vocal stylings of the singer rather than the melody per se. The lesson: you will need a solid melody (or better yet, several) for your instrumental song.
The absence of lyrics can also lead to changes in the way you structure your song. For example, in a typical vocal song the second verse has the same melody as the first, but different lyrics. It is heard as “something different and new.” In an instrumental song, if you just replay the verse melody it is heard as “something you already did.” Big difference! To develop the “verses” of an instrumental song, you have to play variations on the original melody, or simply move on to another melody entirely.
These same considerations occur in jazz and classical music, where singing, though occasionally present, is more the exception than the rule. Melodies tend to be played straight at first and then re-worked and twisted around every which way to keep things interesting. Then they’ll go on to something else and come back to the original melody much later in the piece. This is a good way to think if you want to write an interesting instrumental song in the rock or pop genre.
Playing To Type
Up till now, I have been talking about what I call melodic instrumentals. However, I have also identified two other types of instrumentals: pattern instrumentals and mood (or trance) instrumentals.
A pattern instrumental is one that sounds as if it is being played on a music box or player piano - as if it were pre-programmed. Although there are melodies, they are often arpeggiation or scale-crawling rather than something with a deep emotional hook. (Classical reference points might be Beethoven for the melodic type vs. Bach for the pattern type.)
More Cage than classical, a mood instrumental is one with less actually happening in it than either of the other two types. It draws you in by casting a hypnotic spell over you. There may be melodic fragments and a few patterned parts, but you’re not meant to sing this kind of song in the shower! Frequently repetitive and “new age-y,” these mood instrumentals tend to mostly, well, set a mood instead of actually taking you anywhere.
So how about it? Can you see yourself writing and recording some kind of instrumental song? Particularly if you have never written an instrumental before, you might as well take on the challenge of coming up with one!
To give you some ideas, I am including here three instrumentals that I have recently written and recorded. Roughly speaking, the melodic type is represented by “Fanfare For the Uncommon Man,” the pattern type by “Venezolanos,” and the mood type by “Filadelfia.”
(Enable popups for this site if the mp3 players do not appear, or just click the mp3 links to listen.)
Fanfare For the Uncommon Man (Bendig) (mp3)
Mark Bendig: Keyboards
Venezolanos (Bendig) (mp3)
Mark Bendig: Keyboards
Tags: song ideas
Filadelfia (Bendig-Burgess) (mp3)
Mark Bendig: Keyboards, drums
Jack Burgess: Other keyboards