If I’ve learned anything in my years of studio work, it’s that there’s no such thing as a “typical” songwriter. While some songwriters are highly-trained session musicians, others have never picked up, let alone played, an instrument in their entire lives. I’ll be speaking to this second group in this post. Not playing an instrument while a challenge in certain instances can also lead to some of the most inspired and inventive songs imaginable. The difficulty for songwriters who don’t play an instrument is communicating their ideas clearly to the studio musicians and singers coming in to demo their song. I’m going to recommend a few things that songwriters who don’t play an instrument can do to make their overall songwriter demo experience easier and more productive.

Songwriters who don't play an instrument

1. Make sure you have a melody

While this might sound obvious to the musicians among us, to non-musicians it can be a trickier concept. A lyric without an accompanying melody is only half a song. If you’ve written a lyric and can imagine the general flow and rhythm of it, your best bet is to find a co-writer who can put a melody to your words. If, on the other hand, you can sing your lyric and melody then you’ve officially got an entire song. The only thing missing is a chordal accompaniment. I’ll discuss this a bit more later in this post, but it’s important to note here that for most genres of music, putting chords to a pre-existing melody and lyric doesn’t count as songwriting but, rather, as contributing to the arrangement and is best done on a “for hire” basis.

2. Record a rough acapella version of your song using a metronome

If you’ve written both a lyric and melody to your song, the simplest and best way to communicate it is to sing it into some kind of recording device. You can do this into your smartphone or even directly into your laptop. One thing I’d highly recommend is doing this with a metronome playing at the same time. This can be useful for several reasons. First of all, it can help you find the tempo of your song and secondly, for the studio musicians and singers, hearing your song sung over an existing rhythmic template can help them understand your phrasing and timing in a way that singing with no rhythmic foundation can’t provide. If you don’t sing either, not to worry. You can always pick out your melody one note at a time on a piano keyboard. Again, using a metronome – also called a click track – will be hugely helpful to your studio team.

3. Find a musician for hire to put chords to your melody

Once you’ve made a rough recording of your melody and lyric, your next step is to hire a musician to put chords to your song. You can base your instrument choice on the style of song you’ve written. Sometimes piano works better and sometimes it’s guitar. As I mentioned earlier, this is strictly “for hire” work and shouldn’t result in co-writing credit for the musician. Your best bet – since there are a wide variety of chords that can work over any given melody – is to be directly involved in this part of the process. More often than not, by sitting with the musician and listening to your options, you’ll know the right chords when you hear them. The right chord choices can make all the difference in terms of the mood and tone of your song so be patient with this part of the process and make sure you’re getting what you need.

Songwriters who don't play an instrument

4. Record a scratch vocal over the chords

A final way to make sure everything is working before you bring in the session musicians and singer, is to sing a scratch vocal over the chords you’ve decided upon. Not only will this help you put your song in solid form but will also help reveal any lyric or melodic issues that were less apparent before there were chords involved. Again, if you can’t or won’t sing yourself, it’s still worth hiring someone to sing a scratch vocal. There’s no GRAMMY award for best scratch vocal so it doesn’t have to be great. It simply has to communicate your melody and lyric over the chord changes. This will make things much easier on everyone in the studio when the time comes to record.


As with so many things in the recording studio, the more advance work and preparation you do, the easier and more enjoyable the process will be when it counts. It can be particularly stressful and intimidating for non-musicians to do studio demos and I hope that the above tips help take some of the pressure off so you can get down to the business of making great demos of your songs no matter what your musical background.

Learn how to prepare for your song demos.

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11 responses to “Four Demo Tips For Songwriters Who Don’t Play an Instrument”

  1. Hanna Maulseed says:

    awesome thank u cliff

  2. This is so great and useful i love your blog!!

  3. Anthony says:

    Hi Cliff. Thanks for investing your time to provide valuable information about songwriting. Question… Do you agree that artists are expecting to listen to songs in a radio ready format?

  4. Cliff says:

    Hi Anthony,

    My pleasure! And, yes, artists and industry execs expect broadcast quality recordings. It’s the reality of our business.

  5. June price says:

    Thanks Cliff. I know that I am a song writer but trying to convince my band of that is another matter. The guitarist thinks he is a co writer as he works out the instrumentation for the guitar and bass. I bring the lyrics, melody, arrangement, rhythm and chords to the group after I have written a song. I am the singer too so can present the song to the band really well and used to be in an acapella group for ten years. A couple of songs I have not come with the chords simply because I am only a basic guitarist and could not play b (i can now… lots of my songs have a b in them), but most of them are simple enough with only 3 pr 4 chords……we are a blues band. I have been ordered not to say at a gig that I wrote the next song when I was…blah blah or whatever….so I have stopped. The bass player went so far as to announce to a large audience when we were house at our blues club that June writes the lyrics and Andre writes the music! Getting me down. Thanks for listening…

    • Hi June,

      Sorry to hear things have been complicated with your band. Strictly speaking, lyrics and melody ARE the song but bands often help with the arrangements. It sounds like it might be time for more supportive bandmates. Keep it up!

  6. Adam George says:

    Great to have someone with musical knowledge to help people like us (non musicians). When you see my name on something (musical), you’ll know you had a part in it. Thanks for being there.

  7. Bobby Swift says:

    Hi Cliff, great article my friend.
    I am learning to play the acoustic guitar after my trip to Nashville last June and learned at a songwriting conference, we don’t have to be perfect to sing our demos. I am now also finding out the guitar playing is helping my songwriting as melody and chords together bring out more color to the song lyrics. More like a spiritual experience is how I can best describe it going from non-performing songwriter to playing the guitar. I am still learning but picked up enough so far to start building chords for a song and that is so exciting even in my fifties! Thank you for all you share and I can’t wait to go to another of your classes after I get through my second trip to Nashville in June. Bobby

  8. Norman Allan says:


    As always your advice is well-observed and concisely written. Just a thought … Maybe, as a subject you could address the issue that when a songwriter sits down to write something, don’t be discouraged if nothing happens. Hey, the next time the wind will be blowing in a different direction.

    Really appreciate your posts. Thank you.


  9. Dave Hebert says:

    I’m a songwriter who plays a passable acoustic guitar. I’ve always found it difficult to properly present my songs as scratch demos. Some years ago I found “Band In a Box” software from PG Music. It’s a bit pricey but all that’s needed to create a backing track (this works for solo singers as well) is the chords, key and tempo. The user inputs chord names (e.g., F, Amaj7, etc.) in the appropriate bars, then selects a “style” (from hundreds) and the desired instruments to produce an .mp3 backing track for vocals. Dozens of common styles are bundled with the software (more for a fee), many of which (though not all) sound professionally made. You can even select a solo and print notation sheets for each instrument. I’ve occasionally changed the feel of songs completely by experimenting with different styles. Worth looking into, though, admittedly, “for hire” musicians may not appreciate BIAB. (BTW, this is only a personal endorsement – I’m merely a satisfied former customer.)

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