Do You Have To Know How To Play An Instrument To Write Great Music?

If you’ve always wanted to write music but have never tried it, you might be wondering if you need to master a musical instrument first before you give it a shot. From a non-musical perspective, there are big costs of entry to learning how to write music, and this is true to a degree. From the price of recording equipment or studio time to not knowing where to start, it isn’t always easy to get into songwriting if you have no experience. Luckily, when it comes to experience using an instrument needed for songwriting, you probably need a lot less than you might think. 

How much experience you’ll need on an instrument to write music

There is no one way to write a song, and the diverse methods people turn to are as unique as the writers themselves. For one songwriter, humming a melody over a chord progression on the acoustic guitar would do the trick. For another, rapping over a beat their friend composed on a DAW does the trick. The truth is that depending on your goals in music, you don’t have to know how to play an instrument to write songs. But no matter who you are or what music you want to make, having some basic knowledge of how music works and where an instrument comes into play will help you in huge ways. 

This does not mean you need to be a virtuosic keyboard player or a guitar savant. Far from it. If you have no knowledge of how to play an instrument and pick up some basic skills from music lessons or online tutorials, you’ll be a universe ahead in terms of musical understanding and the ability to create ideas. This especially applies to instruments that produce more than one pitch, like guitars and keyboards. Multi-pitched instruments are needed to perform chord progressions, which are the backbone of harmony in popular music.

Music is filled with examples of musicians experimenting with instruments without knowing or caring how to play them well. In fact, a whole genre of music was built partially on this ethos: punk. When we’re too obsessed with musical perfection, there’s a tendency to dial down creativity for the sake of things sounding “correct.” But if you’re new and are learning just enough basic material to write music with, you won’t have that problem. Whether you’ve been writing music for a month or five decades, you’re still looking for the same things: creative urgency, excitement, authenticity, and ideas that stick. You don’t need to be great on your instrument to unlock amazing musical ideas. You just need to try long enough until you stumble upon something you get excited about. 

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Songwriting vs performing and recording 

You’ll need to know just enough on your instrument to string chords and melody lines together to write music. However, the game changes when it comes to recording and performing. If and when you plan on playing shows and recording your songs, the demands of being technically proficient on your instrument go up considerably. You can’t and shouldn’t set foot on stage with an instrument you can’t play confidently. And if you’re not ready to play through your songs with as few mistakes and pauses as possible, it will be virtually impossible to record them. So while not a lot of technical experience is needed to write music, things get harder when it comes to performing and recording. However, this doesn’t mean you need to be perfect on your instrument to do these things. You need just enough experience and confidence to pull off the specific songs you play live and record. Doing this takes work, but less than you might think. The quicker you nail down fundamentals like switching from chord to chord, the easier writing music and sharing it with the world will be. 

Songwriting isn’t reserved only for those who have mastered musical instruments. If it was, way less of us would be writing music. Instead, it’s open to anyone who is curious and driven to explore music. With some basic knowledge of an instrument, you’ll be able to write great songs if you do the work of experimenting and exploring. 

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

ColtonDo You Have To Know How To Play An Instrument To Write Great Music?

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  • Lanny Thomas - August 11, 2021 reply

    I am a drummer and don’t play any other instrument. However, I have written 3 songs that have been charted #1 in the Beach Music genre. I write lyrics first and then do my best to sing the song to someone who can help me make a demo. So, I can identify with this article. I currently have a 4th song that is at #6 on the WTOB Surfside Top 20 Beach Music chart and I have no idea how to play anything but a drum kit. Thanks for giving me more motivation to continue by confirming that I’m not the only one out there without those skills.

  • JayCee - August 11, 2021 reply

    Why isn’t the voice considered an instrument? Historically, short of striking a rock or log, it is the first instrument ever used by humans or other animals.

  • Joshua Steffen - August 11, 2021 reply

    You don’t have to know how to play an instrument to write music? That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I started playing guitar at 10. Learning arrangement and composition took a little bit but it came naturally to me. I was writing songs by 15. Yes you do need to know how to play an instrument to make music. If you don’t know how to play an instrument you’re probably a rapper. If you want to make music you absolutely need to play an instrument, period.

    C.B.R. - August 12, 2021 reply

    Hi Joshua. I get your point, but I will say that I have written songs by writing lyrics and a melody, then having my two friends sing harmonies. We record the whole piece just singing, and then hire someone to notate the music we’ve recorded, writing charts for the instrumental players. So I/we have “written” a song, albeit we did not notate the chords. Song writing can be done without playing an instrument, but we still needed help from an instrumentalist who knows some theory and knows how to notate.

  • JJ - August 12, 2021 reply

    I enjoyed your article, it is so true that one does not have to have mastered any instrument to write. In fact, some of the best songs in history were written by people who were not proficient on any instrument. I’ve found over the years, that there is no right or wrong way to go about writing music, it’s a simple exercise in getting from point A to point B. The Splitz song Run-2U was written entirely in my head so as not to pervert or taint the idea. 6 weeks later when I began to demo it, I found that I was a full step sharp in my head and had to transpose down ! Though proficient on a guitar synthesizer, I am not a trained pianist, but am working through that on a key based synths today and the creative process has gotten an unexpected lift.

  • KFD - August 14, 2021 reply

    You don’t need to be Irish to play Celtic music. But it helps.

  • Dave - October 20, 2021 reply

    This is a cool concept. My son tells me he started writing music long before he was anything but someone who fiddled around on the piano.

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