Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument


Musicians or others may see a title like this and immediately start glaring through this myTake for something to write a... uhh... “strong worded” opinion over. To potential naysayers abroad though, I offer the butt-covering disclaimer that this is but the opinion of one man with an outdated meme in his username. Take that for what you will, chip off a salt pebble, and take it with you before flying off the rails in the opinion section.

Now that the semi-obligatory disclaimer is over, let me get to the juicy meat of the topic: writing music. I’ve seen various people on GAG over the years seem to have a desire to want to write music, but they feel discouraged from a lack of musical knowledge. Well, I’m here to say: you don’t need to be a musician to write a musical piece.*

*terms and conditions apply, read on for details.

What my goal is: I want you to be able to use a MIDI virtual instrument in a DAW such as Reaper in order to edit MIDI data for songwriting.

If some of those words looked like Latin [assuming you don't know Latin], here are some helpful terms to know / reference:

DAW -- This stands for digital audio workstation. Have you heard of or seen the big mixing boards with all the lights, sliders, doo-dads, and so on? Well, this is like the digital version of that plus much more. It's a way to organize, mix (aka edit and clean up), and master (aka make louder and give an audio equivalent of a facelift).

MIDI -- It's pronounced like "mid - eee." If you aren't familiar with that word yet, you soon will be. Firstly, don't be worried about what it stands for -- I hardly know and I use it daily. For now, just think of it as a type of data that is used in your DAW / synth to keep track of notes.

MIDI (or virtual) Instrument -- This is like the Tyrell synth linked below. If you've listened to a song and you've thought "there is no way that they got a full orchestra for that song!" chances are they've used a midi instrument on the computer to generate it. MIDI instruments let you plug in notes in a DAW and play them back like a synthesizer based in your computer.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

I’ll try to keep it step by step now. Here’s what you need:
1.) Motivation and an image of what you want.

Regardless of musicianship or not, things won't work if you are wanting an end product without willing to put in the effort of making the product. Likewise, if you don't have an idea of what you want to write, it's like sketching a drawing without having an idea of what you're trying to draw. It's like walking across a chasm without building a bridge first. It's like reading to skimming through this *ahem* beautifully crafted myTake and not savoring each thoughtful and symbolic word.

It's like-- well-- uhh-- never mind.

Moving on, my advice is to ask yourself:

A.) What do you want to make? A sad and slow song? A fast paced rock song? Then...

B.) How do you imagine yourself structuring the song initially? Do you want a soft intro going into a loud instrumental? Do you want a loud instrumental going into a soft verse? Then...

C.) Ok. Hum it. If you sound like a angel [that was truly a demon whale in disguise crying pitifully for help] like myself, that's alright. The important part is that you are able to hum something. This makes it a concrete idea. Now...

D.) Record that idea somewhere. Make an audio recording on your phone or on your computer or wherever. The purpose of this is to remind you later of what you just hummed. If you're anything like me, you'll have a great idea and then totally lose once you get distracted by random things, like how the dishwasher cycles in 7/8 time. This recording will come in handy and jog your memory.

2.) A place to write the music down.

If you've just thought about submitting your voice recording made on your phone, shame on you good sir [or mam]. If you've just skipped the myTake to this step and/or totally scoffed at the idea of humming to yourself-- I understand... but-- erm, still, shame on you.

To cut to the chase, you need a good way of making your song. No worries, click on this to download Reaper OR for my fellow Mac crew representin', you can open up Garageband or download Reaper as well.

This is to download the free plugins that are part of reaper:

If you are having trouble installing, look at this tutorial:

For my Reaper crew who just downloaded the files from the links:

A.) Open up Reaper. To see if you have the ReaEQ plug ins installed, go to Track --> Insert New Track in the top panel or hit the equivalent of "command + T." A box should pop up on the left. This is a track. A track is a spot for an instrument to be recorded or a place to put sound effects and whatnot.

The box should look similar to this:

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

Click on FX (number 13). For now, just see to make sure there are things there. A box should pop up saying "Add FX to track: " and there should be something in the boxes somewhere. If it's completely blank, ReaEQ wasn't combined with Reaper. If you're having trouble, I suggest watching youtube videos for help, or letting me know and I can help you.

Alright, close Reaper for now. Assuming everything is working as intended so far, you have a DAW and a bunch of plug-ins (aka the ReaEQ stuff) but you're missing an instrument to create sounds with.

Luckily, the internet has you more than covered. Here are a couple free plug-ins that you can download at your discretion.

Tyrell Synth:

MT Power Drumkit 2 (a virtual acoustic drumset that sounds decent) :

A website with a ton of free VST plug ins and instruments (mostly for PC, but some Mac compatible):

B.) Put it into reaper:

3.) Writing the song notes:

Now that you've gotten through the boring [albeit necessary] crap, let's get down to the fun part. With all your plug-ins and virtual instruments that you want downloaded, it's time to start with the basics of "how to create a note." To do so in Reaper, when you open it up, go to Track --> Insert virtual instrument on new track... . A pop up should appear with a list of the instruments you've downloaded. Click one. Now, go to View --> Virtual MIDI keyboard to make sure it is checked. A keyboard should pop up. Clicking on the notes should now play the instrument through the plug in.

Next, click the record button-- the big red circle at the bottom (or command key + 'r') and hit a note. Hit the space bar to stop recording or the big square at the bottom. It will ask you if you want to save the recording. Click "save all" for now. Double click on the recording you just made -- or rather, double click in the box that started growing next to the track box. This right here is your MIDI edit screen.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

The edit box in question^

You can...

-- Create a note: Click the pitch where you want to create the note. Higher on the list = higher note, lower = lower note.

-- Delete a note: Highlight the note you want to delete, click the delete key on your keyboard

-- Change note pitch: Drag the created note represented by the colored box wherever on the screen. Once you click a note, it will play the sound of the pitch it is pressed on.

-- Change note velocity (how hard the note was played): Click on the note (or notes) you want to change the velocity for. Either put your cursor at the top border of one of the notes, let it change to something similar to a division sign with two arrows, click and drag accordingly OR right click the notes, go to note velocity, choose a number (higher = harder) OR drag the note's other view at the bottom in the vertical bars shown. There are multiple ways.

-- Change the note itself: Click on the note or notes you want to change and drag up or down.

-- Change note length: Put your cursor over the end of a note, it should change to a white double arrow, now click and drag to desired note length

-- Change the grid: In the "Grid: " section at the bottom, you can click on the box (default I believe is 1/32) and you can change it to different subdivisions. This will let you divide your measures up more or less to make things easier to write.

-- Change type of note (i.e. straight or triplet): In the default marked "straight" you can change the type of note. This will affect the future notes you create and can be changed back, naturally.

... and much more.

Also note, there are multiple ways to do each thing. In order to keep this myTake under 20,000 characters, I'm giving you the bare bones of things. If you want to get more in depth (or a visual representation) of a DAW like Reaper, I strongly suggest working through YouTube tutorials! They'll help you out a ton, albeit they can be kind of long and tedious. Some parts also may be irrelevant to what you're wanting, so you may have to skip around slightly. Here is an example:

Now play around with that a bit. That is, in my opinion, the best way of learning an instrument or software -- playing around and messing around with the software.

4.) Tips for truly writing the song:

If you're thinking at this point "my God, I swear he's said we were going to write a song like 4 times already." Firstly, rest assured, I think I only said it like 3 times through vague hints. Secondly, now it's time for you to really start putting that hum recording into use and write the song. *cough* step 1C if you skipped to here *uncough* I'm assuming by now you are at least vaguely familiar with how to create a note and how to edit a note in the virtual machine of your choice in Reaper.

A.) Now, with your song idea in mind, figure out your imagined tempo:

B.) Change your tempo in Reaper. On the main Reaper window, look at the bottom where it says BPM. Click that and set it to whatever tempo you want. Faster tempo = higher number, naturally.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

What the BPM/tempo box looks like^

C.) Figure out your very basic note progression. If you hummed/recorded the melody of your song, ask yourself-- what sounds do you imagine playing underneath (i.e. in a bass line). In Reaper, try to capture these 4 (or however many) notes as midi for reference.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

This is an example "note progression" I made^

D.) Figure out what notes are in your key. If hearing this kind of scares you, don't worry. Chances are you've been training for this moment you're whole life via listening to music. When you listen to music, you're subconsciously noting what sound "right" and "wrong." Never thought those angsty teen pop punk songs you listened to way back in your scene phase when still had an effect, eh? With that in mind, make a list of what notes sound "right" with one of your notes in your note progression, and what notes sound wrong. If you'd like help with this, I suggest doing it in:

Click in what notes you are pretty sure sound right, and then click "Auto detect" in the bottom with the key. You can mess around with the key manually as well and change it to see what key you are writing in. Auto key isn't always correct! The highlighted areas are going to be what notes are in the key and darkened areas are what notes fall out of the key. Most likely, the key you are thinking of is the first note you have + minor or major tacked on at the end. (Think of minor = sad, and major = happy)

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

Using my note progression to find the key I was in via It happens to be C minor

E.) Create a chord progression from your note progression. In a guitar power chord, the chord consists of a fundamental note, a note 5 half steps apart (aka a "fifth"), and a note an octave up (12 half steps up). For the purposes of your chord progression, I suggest starting on your first note in your note progression, creating a second note above this note, and seeing what sounds "right" with it. Ask yourself what captures the sound your imagining or picturing. Is the note that you said "sounds right" in your key you made in step 4D? If it isn't, there is a chance you're hearing it wrong and the note is one that is close to your currently chosen note, but isn't quite right.

F.) When you have your chord progression write the melody on top. Again, refer to your humming recording if you get stuck. Feel free to add in new ideas as you have them though! There is no set in stone rule as far as music goes, only suggestions.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

An example melody made on a separate track. To make another track, hit Track --> Insert Virtual Instrument on New Track...

5.) Tweak your sound

Are you using the Tyrell synth, and it's sounding like a really bad NES soundtrack being sawed in half, while you want it sounding like a modern smooth ethereal synth? Fear not! Unless your computer is broken, chances are your synth settings just haven't been tweaked. Go to your track box, click the bright green FX button. The Tyrell pop up will open. I would suggest messing with the faders and dials to see what they do. For the sake of cramping typing hands though, let's just go to presets for now.

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

Added some random presets by clicking the preset button at the top right^

5.5) OH WAIT! What's that [totally not planned event] in the bottom left corner?!

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument

^A zoom in of the bottom left corner of my screen. To reset the peak indicator click where the red parts are.

That's some serious clipping. Unless you want your music sounding like a bass-boosted meme without any of the meme-age, slide those faders (the grey shaded things) down so that you aren't hitting the top of the meter and going into red. You can make it louder again later in the mastering process. That's partially what it's there for. For now, just turn your computer volume up.

6 and beyond.) Discover!

As I briefly mentioned before, the best way to learn this software is to use it and experiment around with it. (Don't worry-- I don't think there is anyway to syskey your computer via Reaper.) Experiment around with plug-ins like reverb. Remember when you looked at the plug-in list when you clicked FX? Well, click on them and play around with them! you can get some really cool effects.

With that in mind, the rest is largely up to you. Let me know if you need any help with any of the parts and I'll respond as best as I can! Likewise, a lot of help is already up on the internet for Reaper. There is a TON of information to process, so I know it can be daunting. Likewise, there was quite a ton I couldn't get to. However, if you're trying to get a specific sound, let me know as well and I can try and give you some tips!

Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument
Serious Songwriting Without Knowing How to Play an Instrument
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