What Instruments Should A Songwriter/Composer Know How To Play?

Tommaso Zillio

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Ok, so you want to be a songwriter or a composer. Do you know what instruments you have to learn? Maybe you know already how to play an instrument and want to know if you have to learn another one, and which one? Or maybe you do not know how to play any instrument yet, and you want to know what instrument will give you the highest "composing power"?

There seems to be a lot of confusion on this topic. Can one even be a composer without knowing how to play an instrument? Does every composer have to be a virtuoso player too? Are there instruments that are "better" for songwriters? Let's make some clarity regarding all that:

Do You Need To Be Able To Play At All?

Opinions differ on this one. Can you be a proficient composer without being able to play an instrument? Let's examine the facts:

  1. In the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods of music, the vast majority of famous composers were either virtuoso of one instrument, or at least very proficient (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Listz, Paganini...).
  2. There WERE exceptions. For instance, Berlioz was reportedly famous for not being a good piano player. Though, apparently he was quite a competent guitar player.
  3. In modern music there have been many songwriters who are not virtuoso, but all of them have at least a passing knowledge of one instrument (I'll tell you about an exception to this in the video below)

So it seems that YES, you do need to be able to play an instrument to be able to write music.

At What Level Do You Need To Be Able To Play?

You may think we already answered that: you do NOT need to be a virtuoso of the instrument. But this is not true: in fact you may need to be a virtuoso. Think for instance of Paganini or Steve Vai: their music would not be the same if they were not virtuoso of their instruments.

So the answer is: depends on the music you want to write. If you want to compose virtuoso pieces for a specific instrument, you need to know that instrument well yourself. Otherwise you just need to know "enough" of it to get by. As an example, the Beatles were not virtuoso players, but they were competent enough to compose and perform their own songs.

What Instruments Are Best?

Goes without saying that every instrument of which you learn the basic will give you a valuable perspective. But there is a wide consensus on the fact that not all the instruments are created equal. In fact you will get a quite complete picture of how music works knowing just the basic of only 3 instruments (and chances are that, without even realizing it, you already know one or two).

To find what are the three "master instruments" that will give you the greatest "songwriting power", watch the video below:

How many of these instruments you know already? How much (or how little) time would you need to acquire the basics of the ones you do not know? As you can see, with a minimal time investment you will get an immense return for your songwriting and composing.

So have fun with these instruments. Remember: you do NOT need to be a virtuoso to compose!


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