When you listen to a song on the radio, you concentrate on the lyrics and the beat. You don’t always think about the layers of instrumentation that work together to create one great song.
Whether the instruments are recorded live or whether the instrumentation is synthesized in a studio, musicians need many different instrument sounds to create a full experience for the listener. So, what are the most common instruments used in a pop song, and how can you use them to make your own sick beat?
A typical pop song uses about 7 different instruments. Here are the most common choices:
1. Vocals: Of course, a song isn’t a song without vocals. The vocals are where the magic happens—all the other instruments are chosen to support the vocals. If you’re writing a song, you want to make sure the vocal section is strong, whether it involves singing or rapping—or both.
And don’t forget about background vocals, which can add an extra touch. This could include a singer harmonizing with the main vocalist, or even a choir. In a recording studio, you should make sure the background vocals match the lead vocalist without distracting attention. For example, you should cut out or fade breathing that might draw attention from the main vocalist.
2. Guitars: Guitars are probably the most popular instruments in pop music. Heck, some songs have nothing but vocals and guitars! Types of guitars include:
- Bass Guitar: The bass guitar plays an octave (eight notes) lower than an acoustic guitar. The bass guitar creates the pulse of the music. You probably know plenty of people who crank up the bass when you listen to music—maybe you’re even one of them. But you don’t want to drown out the rest of your music with the bass; it should play a supporting role.
- Acoustic Guitar: This is the most common guitar, and can be used as the lead guitar—unless you prefer the sound of an electric guitar.
- Electric Guitar: The electric guitar really amplifies your music. The strings’ vibration becomes electrical impulses that hit your listeners’ ears like thunder. The electric guitar is used either to set the beat or as a lead guitar, which performs melody lines and solos.
3. Drums: What’s a good song without a good beat? Drums help keep the beat, but they can also enhance the rhythm and mood of the music. If you don’t play the drums, they can be electronically created.
4. Winds and Brass: Wind and brass instruments don’t make an appearance in every pop song, but they definitely enhance the ones they’re in. These instruments include saxophones, flutes, and trumpets.
Yes, even saxophones are used in pop. Recent pop songs that feature saxophones include “Get Right” by Jennifer Lopez, “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry, and “The Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga.
5. Strings: How would Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” sound without violins? String instruments like violins, violas, and cellos add greater depth and beauty to modern music.
6. Piano: Of course, no one can forget about piano. Pop songs with beautiful piano interludes include Adele’s “Someone Like You,” Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles,” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Even rap and hip hop use piano backgrounds—think of Kanye West’s “Family Business.”
7. Percussion: Here’s where your imagination can really run wild. Consider trying these background sounds:
- Tambourine: A tambourine can be used for a wide variety of music, from folk music to rock. There are several ways to play it in order to create a unique sound:
-Shake the jingles
-Strike it with a hand or stick
-Strike it to the leg or hip
-Tambourine roll: move the hand holding the tambourine back and forth rapidly
-Thumb roll: an advanced technique created by moving the finger or thumb around the rim of the tambourine
- Shaker: You can create your own shaker—just fill a container with small objects like beads. Shakers are used to keep the beat and add an extra dimension to the rhythm section.
- Hand Claps: Some songs use a percussion option as simple as hand claps—like the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
8. Others: To make your song truly unique, try adding an instrumental sound your listeners aren’t used to hearing.
- Glockenspiel or Xylophone: These are both instruments that a musician plays by hitting with mallets. The glockenspiel is made of steel, while the xylophone is made of wood.
Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” features a glockenspiel. Have you ever wondered what that unique sound is in Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”? Yep, it’s a xylophone.
- Harmonica: A harmonica may seem easy to learn, but it’s also quite unique. There are many types of harmonicas, even bass harmonicas. You’ll hear its folksy sound in Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.”
Whether you play these instruments or not, you can use a studio to create the instrumental sounds you’re looking for. So incorporate some of these instruments in your song composition and create a sound that’s all your own.