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Being a huge prog head, I do love me a good instrumental song. Some of my favorite artists/ bands/musicians that make instrumental music include a lot of Jazz fusion guys (Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth, Jean Luc Ponty come to mind right away). I also listen to metal so bands like Animals As Leaders and Haunted Shores are two that come to mind right away.

So in this article I wanted to talk about how writing instrumental music is different from writing a song in the traditional sense and how you could write one of your own. 

Choose the Type of Instrumental Music You Want to Write

Let’s start off with a disclaimer. Instrumental music is a very broad term. 

Essentially any song that does not have a strong vocal presence could be considered instrumental and even having some vocals could still be seen as instrumental under the right context. 

For example, Great Gig in the Sky by Pink Floyd in my opinion is an instrumental song even though there’s a vocal leading the entire song. But since it’s not singing lyrics and the voice is functioning more like an instrument, I consider it to be instrumental. 

So anyway, lots of different types of music are instrumental and they might have different goals. 

Here’s a few types of music that are either heavily instrumental or completely instrumental and are quite different from one another. 

  • Movie soundtracks – Meant to enhance a film.
  • Meditation music – Meant to create a sense of calm and stability. 
  • Jazz Fusion – Mixes jazz with other genres like rock, latin, world music, and the list goes on. 
  • Ambient Music – Meant to create a specific mood or recreate a physical location. Lots of soundscapes, maybe nature sounds like the ocean, birds, or wind. Could be electronic. Could be Noise music. 
  • Post Rock – often instrumental, mixes rock with ambient sounds and soundscapes. Usually minimalist as far as rock goes.
  • EDM – Made specifically for dancing. 
  • Prog Rock – There’s usually vocals but they do have a heavy focus on instrumentation and many bands do have instrumental songs as well. 
  • Classical Music – pretty much all instrumental. Can’t think of any classical music with vocals, although I’m not an expert on it. I feel like many composers would cringe at the thought haha. 

So with the next sections of this blog post just know that the things I say are mostly in the context of writing instrumental music in the area of rock, prog rock, post rock, jazz fusion, metal, etc because those are the styles I listen to the most and which I assume you would want to write music in. 

Ok on to the tips!

Practical Songwriting for Instrumental Songs

Before I go into the more conceptual tips I just want to address the more concrete, practical part of writing an instrumental song. 

It’s really not very different from writing a traditional song. You could still have a Verse Chorus Bridge structure going on. But instrumental songs might have, for example, a main hook melody as a Chorus, improvisation over the Verse, then a Bridge that progresses through one or more parts. 

For example, let’s look at Meeting of the Spirits by Mahavishnu Orchestra. The structure looks like this:

  • Intro
  • Chorus (main melodic hook) 
  • Verse (guitar solo) 
  • Chorus (main melodic hook) 
  • Bridge 
  • Verse (keyboard solo this time) 
  • Chorus (main melodic hook) 
  • Bridge 
  • Verse (as outro – short violin solo then fade out) 

Not very different from the kind of structure you would see in many modern pop and rock songs. 

Only difference is that instead of vocals driving the song it’s the solos and the musicianship tends to be more advanced. 

So in simple steps you could:

  • Choose a key
  • Choose a song structure
  • Choose a chord progression (start simple and add chord extensions and chord substitutions if you want to get fancy)
  • Write an instrumental melodic hook
  • Choose the instruments that will improvise
  • Spice up the musicianship with more advanced music theory such as odd time signatures, modes, key changes, obscure scales, etc. This is more for prog and jazz fusion than minimalist genres like post rock though.

Now let’s talk about some key points to remember when writing your own instrumental song.

Big Focus on Melodies as Hooks and Motifs

As mentioned above, in traditional songwriting the vocals are usually the main driver of the song. It’s what a listener will latch on to right away. It’s what will take them through the journey of the song. 

In instrumental music we don’t have vocals, so something has to take the spotlight and guide the listener through the music, and that something are the instrumental melodies, melodic hooks and motifs that the audience can hold on to. 

Make sure the listener always has something guiding them through the song. It could also be a rhythm or groove too. 

Share the Instrumental Spotlight

This is something that every artist, band, musician should do regardless of whether they have a singer or not but is especially important in instrumental songs. 

Try not to always have the same instrument being the center of attention at all times because it can get monotonous. Even songs with vocals can have singers who oversing.

So in your instrumental song make sure you are giving the spotlight to different instruments. 

Maybe the Intro is led by the drums but then the Verse can have a bass groove and then a guitar or synth lead can come in and do the main melodic hook of the song. This will make the song much more dynamic and engaging. 

Full disclosure though, there are many artists who completely neglect this and still pull it off. 

An example that comes to mind is Are You Going With Me? by Pat Metheney. It’s almost entirely one long guitar solo. 

So hey, some people can do it. Maybe you are one of those alien virtuosos that can pull it off. Don’t let me stop you from trying. 

Solos are Recommended, if not Necessary

Instrumental music played by bands is usually heavy with improvisation. Since there are no vocals, there’s a ton of space for solos. 

It’s also common to see long solos where the instrumentation below doesn’t just stay on the same few chords the whole time, but rather stays for a bit and then switches to other chord progressions or moves on to different song sections while there is still a solo going on over it. 

This is helpful to keep things spicier and to make the song more progressive, in the sense that it moves forward and progresses as if telling a story. 

Experiment With More Advanced Music Theory

One of the biggest advantages of instrumental music is all the space and freedom you can have as a musician to go crazy with music theory. 

Instrumental music tends to be music for musicians (but also music nerds haha) and since they are listening more actively than the average joe they are more likely to hear and appreciate all the crazy stuff you could throw into a song. 

So feel free to get really nerdy with your songs if you want. It’s a great place to try something weird that you wouldn’t necessarily throw into a more radio friendly song. 

Try odd time signatures, crazy jazz chords, use obscure scales, change keys, use lots of modes, etc.

Get Weird

In addition to the last point, instrumental music is a great place to get as weird as you can. 

Make your guitar sound like another instrument with effects, experiment with dissonance, go on psychedelic interludes mid song, use crazy world instruments, make really long songs 10min+. The list goes on. 

I think doing this is one of the things that can grow a musician the most. We can get so bogged down with trying to make something polished and perfect that we forget to just have fun, break the rules and be weird af. 

Unknowingly, this freedom and experimentation is what allows artists to find their sound and come up with combinations of things that no one has tried before. 

Get weird today.

Some Instrumental Artists to Check Out for Inspiration

Instrumental music can be a bit harder to find than your usual radio friendly, marketable artist so I made a list below of artists and bands you could check out. 

If you’re a seasoned music nerd then you’ll probably recognize a lot of them, but hopefully I can turn you on to something cool you’ve never heard before that can spark some inspiration for you. 

Jazz Fusion

  • Bill Bruford
  • Jean Luc Ponty
  • Chick Corea

Post Rock

  • Explosions in the Sky
  • Red Sparowes
  • Russian Circles
  • Isis

Prog Rock

  • Jaga Jazzist
  • Liquid Tension Experiment
  • Mahavishnu Orchestra
  • Chon
  • Plini

Prog Metal

  • Animals as Leaders
  • Haunted Shores
  • I Built The Sky

Wrapping it Up

To recap, writing an instrumental song is actually not very different from writing a song in the traditional sense. 

Structures are relatively similar, although chord progressions will get a lot more complicated than just making diatonic chord progressions (chords within the key). 

The focuses for instrumentals switch to lead melodies and the instrumental prowess of the musicians. Without the restrictions of having to appeal to a wide array of listeners, musicians can get really weird, complex in their music theory, and strive for virtuosity in their instrument. 

I think it’s important to have a good balance in your songwriting though, where you focus on making music that is instrumentally interesting and exciting to listen to and play, but also keep in mind that the songs have to be about the music and not about how hard the stuff is to play and how well you can play it. It’s fine to show off sometimes but don’t completely neglect the song just to show off. 

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