View Full Version : What are the secrets of instrumental writing?

10-21-2008, 06:19 AM
I love to play and listen to instrumentals. I find myself creating short musical snippets all the time, but don't know how to flesh them out into a full blown song. Are there tried and true methods for doing this? I admit that I suck when it comes to music theory and stuff like that... So maybe I'm a lost cause?

Julie Strietelmeier

10-21-2008, 06:55 AM
Don't give up before you really try!

There are no "secrets." All it takes is work. I admit, sometimes a piece will flow naturally and write itself in an hour, but most of the time this is not the case. Expect to sit with a piece for days, weeks even.

Here's a couple of things you can try:

Most songs are written from one melodic motif. Take one of your snippets and record yourself playing it over and over. Let your fingers explore other avenues based on the snippet. Record everything. If your snippet is based on one chord, try it on other chords in the same key. After you've played for at least 15 minutes, listen back and see if there's anything you can use.

Perhaps two or more of your snippets can be combined into one piece. A bit of tweaking here and there may help you achieve this. Switch the key of one snippet to match another.

Sometimes the best stuff comes to you when you're not playing! If you're at your wit's end, put the ukulele down and hum your snippet or motif to yourself. It doesn't even have to be out loud, you can just hum it in your head. Where does the melody logically take you? Once you have something in your head, find it on your uke!

Hope this helps. Ask any questions you may have, Julie. Good luck and don't lose hope!

10-21-2008, 07:17 AM
Here's a short example of motif writing.

I just played a short little melody:


Hmm... Maybe it will work on the next chord up the scale:


Cool! Let's see if I can take it further:


I expanded a short one bar melody to 5 bars. Yes, this is a simple example, but there really is no limit to this kind of writing.

If you feel like you've exhausted the limits of that melody, take the rhythmic qualities of the motif and work with that. You'll see in the 4th bar that I broke slightly away from the melodic direction, but the rhythm stayed the same.

The most important thing to ask yourself - "Where does this piece want to go?"

I like to think that the songs I've written already existed before I wrote them. All I did was pluck them out of the air. It takes the pressure off. Listen to the song. Let the piece tell you where it wants to go.

10-21-2008, 07:34 AM
Great advice, seeso! Thanks for sharing.

10-22-2008, 07:00 AM
Thanks for the great advice, Seeso! I'd love to write some original songs.

Frequently Rich and I mess around with chord progressions and I'll do some melodic riffs and we take turns doing lyrics improvs. I think we need to start recording some of these jam sessions to see if we can use anything!

10-22-2008, 08:52 AM

Thanks for the tips on motif writing. I'm going to give it a try this weekend. :D


Pete Howlett
10-22-2008, 09:06 AM
Theme establishes meoldy
Variation explores theme
Move to the relative minor or major key and develop a contrasting mood but still using elements of the established melody
Combine the 3 elements above into 1

'Folk' music tends to do the first 2 steps - Irish jigs being a good example and they get past the boredom stage of repetition by putting 2 tunes together that are in a similar key and have similar motifs.

Most good instrumental music that wants to make more of a statement follows the 4 movement structure...

10-22-2008, 03:48 PM
I need to put this in context. I am an intermediate level fingerstyle guitarist and have arranged a number of tunes for my own use. I came to the uke about 6 months ago and am just now starting to arrange some fingerstyle pieces. My main interest is in jazz standards and lounge music genre; all fingerstyle; [I]no[I] singing. I use an "easy piano" version of whatever tune I am going to arrange. The chords are less complicated that way--stripped to the basics, if you will. I find it easier to add notes to a simple arrangement than to subtract notes from a complicated one, if that makes sense. The ones that I have done for guitar have not been stellar, but have been playable and have enough chordal underpinning to make them interesting.

One lesson I have learned is that it is easy to get an arrangement too crowded with chords. I like some free space for the melody voice to be heard. Some of the jazz arrangements that I have encountered have been too cluttered for my ears.