The Instrumental Approach

Perhaps the instrumental song isn’t quite given enough credit these days. Instrumental music has the power to be exhilarating, cathartic and arguably at times place more of an abstract story in the listener’s mind than songs with lyrics. Instrumental music perhaps also lends itself to opportunities such as experimenting and pushing yourself on your instrument during live performances or creating license deals for syncs.

As someone who writes instrumental music as well as songs with lyrics, there are interesting comparisons to be made in terms of approach but the ultimate maxim is the following: There are no rules!

Admittedly, the composition approach is abstract, chaotic and holistic. To affirm that all you need to do is look up quotes on compositional writing from Debussy or Bernstein. That being said, here are some of the approaches that can be considered when writing instrumental music or any music for that matter.


1. Mood

The first thing when writing a song, or piece of instrumental music is the mood and tone you want to set and if it inspires you enough you can go with it. Do you want the music to be relaxing (Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Albatross’), majestic (Steve Vai’s Liberty) or terrifying (King Crimson’s ‘Providence’) or something else? Do you want to it to shift from one mood to another and have a story an arc? The more clear you are on the mood you wish to set, the stronger and more resonant your composition will be.

2. Melody

For the song, it is usually the singer who is responsible for the melody but in the instance of instrumental music this can widely vary from guitar to saxophone to piano. When writing an electric guitar based melody I try to make my phrasing as lyrical as possible. This can be achieved by incorporating techniques that are particular to the instrument such as vibrato, slides, legato, staccato, portamento etc. There are various ways to make your instrument ‘sing’ and this can be highly useful for making your melody in an instrumental piece stand out.

3. Cohesiveness

If you have a mood that has been already established as well as some melodic ideas for your new composition, you are probably already off to a good start with creating a clear structure for your piece. Throughout the creative process it is always worth some critical thinking by asking yourself the following questions. Does the structure make sense? Is there suitable contrast and variation between each section? Is it interesting to listen to? Does it feel complete? You may not always be able to answer these questions yourself so find people with opinions you trust and get them to give you their honest input.

4. Innovation

Trying new things is always welcome and can lead to successful and creative outcomes in instrumental composition. A couple of examples are exploring ways in which instruments can interact with each other through texture or exploring various harmonies through chord progressions. Another way is experimenting with sonority and sound production. to give some examples, Bonobo creates various atmospheres through use of beats and samples. Guthrie Govan composed a track called ‘Waves’ by trying to make his guitar sound like a synthesiser. Eric Johnson often uses chord inversions on the guitar that would normally be found on the piano.  Music offers so many opportunities to experiment, you just have to be bold enough to take the risks.

5. Utilising The Triangle of Music

Music development can be essentially perceived as the following:

All musicians are students and the way in which we learn is through building our technical chops and knowledge. We can then use our ability and knowledge to inform our decisions when it comes to being musical, be it interpreting or directing performance or composing. It is always worth noting to yourself that you can always learn something new. Being as musical as we can be is the ultimate goal.

6. Listen To Other Music

Listening to the music we love ultimately inspires us to make music of our own and there are some amazing instrumental recordings out there. You can also take away ideas from artists you love to create your very own ideas. Here is a list of instrumental albums that have been released this last decade that I have loved.


About the Author

Ryan Elliott is a composer, producer and music educator. He leads the progressive rock band Eden Shadow and is guitarist for the instrumental jazz rock band Kinky Wizzards and their second album ‘Quirky Musings’ was released in 2017.


Follow Ryan and The Kinky Wizzards at the links below: