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.
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.
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.
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.
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.