Garnish Music Production School in London

Do you have to be able to play an instrument to produce and write songs?

Do you have to be able to play an instrument to produce and write songs?

by Chris Porter

The moment you set foot inside of songwriting, it can feel as if you are going to be judged. By your peers, by the casual observer, by anyone who feels you might benefit from their opinion! And there’s an awful lot of musical snobbery to do with virtuosity, musical nous and production values.

So do you have to be able to play an instrument to be a songwriter? Is a working musical knowledge (backed up by the ability to accompany yourself on an instrument) essential to be able to write songs?

And of course the short answer is: no.

Many instrumentalists are taught to play their instruments. And many subsequently complain they have been taught to think (and play) in the same ‘shapes’ as whoever their teacher was. Never underestimate the power of teaching yourself to play an instrument, as your technique and knowledge may be unorthodox, while your exploration of what’s possible (while arguably limited) may result in patterns, phrasing and a sound that many would consider unique… and in songwriting terms, unique can be very, very good.

But perhaps most importantly, it’s the ideas behind songs which really have the ability to connect and to sell the product to an audience. Are you a truly creative individual? Do you have something to say? Are you passionate and connected to the material in question? Can you sell your ideas to others – either as an advocate or even as the singer of the material? Can you hum a riff? Tap a drumbeat? Can you manipulate language to explain to other musicians what you can hear in your head?

Then you could be the lyricist, or the topliner, or the visionary whose very concept can conjure a new song from the ether. You can collaborate with other music makers who do play instruments. Or who press the buttons and ride the software.

But best of all, there are now plenty of examples of software that can aid the fledgling songwriter – with intuitive controls and interfaces that are coupled with free loops and samples which can inspire and provoke in equal measure.

Perhaps the easiest and most well known is Apple’s free app, Garageband, which is the gratis little brother of one of the industry standard music sequencing programs, Logic – free with every Apple computer. Applications like this, coupled with free sound samples and loops from sites like splice.com, looperman.com and loopmasters.com have exploded the arena of what it means to create musical ideas from scratch. If you set aside the need to create a timely, nuanced production (which harbours a whole different set of considerations) then these tools offer a crash course in creativity. To put it another way, you can, as a total novice, put together a selection of pre-recorded loops and samples that are equitable to the pieces of several different jigsaws – and yet can all be fitted together in countless different ways to form a new, unique jigsaw. Better still, you can control things like tempo, complexity of part and also add effects like reverb on top.

If you then plug in a microphone, guitar or keyboard, you can overdub fresh, spontaneous and organic performances over the top of these other royalty-free performances. (And quantize some of them, too!)

To summarise, it’s vision and ideas that truly count and truly intoxicate others. The opportunities of collaboration and the employment of technology to inspire and assist your vision exists, too. What are you going to do? Pretend these wonderful opportunities don’t exist? Or get busy being a songwriter, with or without an instrument…