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Learning an Instrument for Songwriting: What You Need To Know

There are many benefits to your musicianship when you learn and master playing an instrument. You increase coordination, cognitive skills that include better memory, and create a higher level of social awareness. 

The piano works as a wonderful starting point for most musicians, as it provides a good base in music theory, and it helps make identifying chords and key signatures a much easier task. But the guitar also provides an equally solid foundation for learning chords and is utilized just as frequently with songwriting. There are numerous advantages to learning and knowing how to play one of these instruments if you write songs. No matter which avenue you select, picking one of these classic instruments will undoubtedly assist and grow your songwriting abilities. 

Chords, Progressions, and Rhythm

Does it actually matter what instrument you choose to study as a songwriter? For some, it may, depending on the type of song they’d like to compose. But both the piano and guitar easily show chord progressions, and when you’re able to master chords and key signatures, you can recognize song patterns for writing more effectively. You can create simple or complex chord progressions, create melodies, and find creative ways to structure your songs. 

When you use the piano you have the added ability to use a sustain pedal and play multiple notes at once, allowing them to carry over and create a richer sound. This can help with writing songs because you’re able to identify what notes and chords work well together. You don’t have gaps from note to note or chord to chord since you can intermingle both. 

The guitar, however, is a more portable instrument and it’s easy to carry around. Guitarists who have a working knowledge of their fingerboards also have the opportunity to turn that information into more invention and more precise choices. Rhythm plays a big part in this because it’s not just the chord progressions – it’s how they are played. You can create multiple songs utilizing the same 3 or 4 chords, but altering the rhythm makes a completely different song each time. You can alter rhythm with the piano but the sound that comes out usually isn’t as altered as it can be when you use the guitar. With guitar, you can introduce nuance through techniques such as muting, bending, and hammering.

Music Theory helps with your Songwriting

Songwriting starts with knowledge of music, and theory will assist tremendously by providing you with a basic understanding of how music works no matter which instrument you’re learning. It is important to not only learn how to play the guitar or piano, but to study how music sounds, why something happens in a song, and how to apply that to your own composition. As a songwriter, it’s especially important to understand things like chord progressions, cadences, and key modulations, along with tempo and dynamics. 

Even though it is possible to write and create great music without this background, music theory will help you gain much more ground as a songwriter because you’ll have a working knowledge of how music is meant to sound, flow, and progress.

Music theory also helps you with your musical creativity. Your understanding of music allows you to listen to music and recognize what chords and sounds are used frequently. You can create your own unique song by breaking away from that norm, helping you to become more innovative as a songwriter. If you take some time to listen to songs on the radio, it will help you to hear the more popular genre patterns. You can easily establish and recognize the pop-track sound – it is much more basic than most even realize.  

You can make it more catchy with Dynamics

Every songwriter dreams of making a hit song; something that will be heard on the radio and recognized by millions, but it has to have the right hook or bring something unique to the airwaves. Your instrument, be it guitar or piano, will guide you. The dynamics you instill in your writing will allow the notes to evolve, so you can compose diverse and emotion-evoking sounds.

The key to good songwriting is to inspire and spark feelings within your audience. Altering dynamics and using them in a specific way will ignite those emotions. Your instrument is important here. Be it piano, with using the pedal and forcefulness of the keys to express a powerful series of notes and lyrics, or the guitar with intentional strums or plucks, it gives you the use of range in such a way that puts soul into your songs. With either the piano or the guitar, the instrument you choose needs to be an extension of your songwriting, so that you can properly deliver your story the way that you envisioned it when putting the words down on paper.

Singing is essential in Songwriting

According to Tracy Reina, founder of her own NYC-based music school, if you want to be a songwriter, you should “sing – even if you can’t sing – because it is going to aid you when coming up with a proper tune.” You don’t have to be a good vocalist, you can worry about having someone else sing your song later on. But when practicing your songwriting, you should have an idea of the way the words are going to play out, and the only way you can really do that is by singing it out loud, no matter your vocal talent. The Music To Your Home singing teacher also goes on to say that “being able to come up with catchy tunes using your own voice will make your songwriting easier down the line – especially if you’re collaborating with other writers. Being able to demonstrate a tune with your voice to explain how it will sound against a piano or guitar chord will aid greatly in the collaboration process.”

Play what works for you

The more comfortable you are with your instrument, the more natural the task of songwriting will be. If you start with the piano but have trouble with key modulations, or you start on a guitar but find changing chords to be difficult, switch it up. There is nothing that says you have to choose one instrument over the other. Both instruments will give you the basis for understanding song patterns and guide your writing. The ultimate goal is to better your songwriting with a stronger knowledge of music in general – however you decide to go about getting that knowledge is whatever is going to work best for you

It can be difficult to get going, and occasionally you may find yourself spending hours writing one day, and another you might feel you have nothing to write at all. But the key is to keep picking up that guitar or going to that piano, and remaining resilient in your efforts. Your songs will only get better the more consistently you attempt to write and produce them. Learning an instrument can be taxing, but your goal is to build a basic understanding in order to plunk out notes that bring your words to life. Don’t get hung up on your playing abilities; keep your focus on the writing.

Start Simple: Composition can be easier than you think

The piano allows for a bit more range than the guitar, and that can seem like more work. But as a beginner, you can start very simply. Chords and melodies are fairly easy to map out, so especially if you’re new to either the piano or the guitar, and are learning about composition for the first time, you can outline a song by using just a few key notes and chords without getting too complex. 

Music Composition Doesn’t Have to be Difficult!

Don’t make things more difficult than they need to be. A songwriting structure has five basic steps:

  1. Establishing the basic chords & progressions
  2. Creating the Melody
  3. Adding in the Harmony
  4. Connecting the Patterns together (chorus, bridge, versus)
  5. Establishing your W’s: What, Why, When

The final step may be the most important. Answer questions about your song to ensure you’re creating the right connection or relationship you want your audience to build with your lyrics and melodies.

Since learning basic music theory teaches you how to read music, the composition portion of writing your own music becomes something that you can easily do. When you read music, you can recognize patterns in things like musical technique, use of arpeggios, what chords are used more often than others, and what sounds are more pleasing to the ear. All of this helps you greatly when you sit down to write your own song. When starting out in songwriting, focus on the basics of a piece to keep the process “simple.”

Learn To Play So You Can Write Your Heart Out

If you want to compose catchy and complex-sounding melodies in creative ways, dramatic climaxes or even a hard rock tune, just choosing a basic instrument – whether it is the guitar or the piano, is going to aid you greatly in your songwriting. Basic singing and music theory are also two really important pieces that should not be ignored – equipping yourself with some foundational knowledge in those areas is going to give you songwriting advantages. 

No matter what genre you want to write from, the benefits of melodic quality through chord progressions, ranges, dynamics and theory that you will learn from playing are going to be the strongest assets in your songwriting. The benefits of learning an instrument will take you further in your songwriting journey. If you want to be a songwriter but don’t know an instrument, you have to start somewhere, and the skills you develop are going to aid you tremendously in your musical career.


  1. Jessie Kazwerski says:

    Great stuff! I’ve always wanted to try and write a song, and I like this breakdown for composition that makes it easier. I’m going to follow these steps and see how I do! 🙂

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