The composer Mozart almost always composed by finding a catchy melody as a first step, and then finding a bass line that supported it. Filling in all the missing instruments was, for him, something closer to a final step in composition.
We can infer two things from this kind of compositional process:
- He considered melody to be the most important aspect of any piece of music.
- The bass line implied the harmony/chord progression; once you’ve got a bass line that works with a melody note, you’ve got (often) two notes of a full chord.
It also affirms something I’ve believed for a long time: a melody-first songwriting process is actually a melody-and-chords process, in the sense that it’s hard — or perhaps impossible — for any good musician to hear melody notes without also hearing the chords that could go with them.
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When you write songs, you might be starting with a bit of lyric, or a poem. Or perhaps you’ve got a rhythmic groove in mind. But when it comes to actually creating the notes, you’re either going to:
- start by working out a melody, and find the chords that go with it, or…
- start by working out a chord progression, and then find a melody that works.
In today’s hit songwriting, using a topliner — a singer who can create melodies above a given progression and production — means you’re following the second process listed above. You’re trying to find a melody that works with an already-existing underlay of chords and instrumentation.
Creating a Melody-and-Bass-Line Partnership
But if you’re willing to have a go at it, you might try Mozart’s method of working out a melody and bass line as a partnership of musical features. It seemed to work out OK for him. 😉
Here’s a step-by-step that will guide you through the melody-and-bass process:
- Play a chord on guitar or keyboard, and choose a starting note for your melody. At this point, a random choice of note is completely fine.
- Improvise a short melody of a few notes without using your instrument.
- Using the bass notes of your chording instrument (guitar or keyboard), improvise a bass line that might work with that melody. Think like a bass player, which means think of supporting that melody line, not trying to create a counter melody. Don’t worry about what chords your bass line is implying. Just get something working together.
- As you create your melody, let the bass line be more active as the melody notes get longer; let the bass line sit on one note (or play rhythmically on one note) as the melody line becomes more active.
- As you work, your bass line should be implying the chords. So even though you’re only playing a bass note, your imagination should be allowing you to “hear” the harmonies that are implied by that bass note.
In a sense, by creating a bass line, you’re actually creating a chord progression. As in Mozart’s process, you can fill in actual chords (instrumentation) later.
The Strength of a Melody and Bass Partnership
So why did Mozart work this way? Why didn’t he actually write out the chord progressions (in the form of instrumentation) as he worked at this preliminary stage? The answer was that it just wasn’t necessary yet. What he really needed to establish was a melody and chords. The bass line implied the chords, and it was a lot faster for him to write a bass line than it was for him to write out an entire instrumentation.
But I also thing there’s another benefit to working out a melody and bass line as a songwriting process: listeners will hear melody first, and then bass line as a second important feature, before they’re aware of whatever else is going on instrumentally. That means that if you can get a melody and bass working well together, you’ve got the makings of a good song with a strong structural design.
Whether you’re a chords-first or melody-first songwriter, try giving the melody-and-bass process a try.
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There are times when songs form themselves in your creative mind rather quickly. It seems that almost within minutes, you’ve got the basic structure working, even if some of the lyrics, melodies and chords haven’t all been worked out. It’s exciting when things happen quickly in the composing of music.
On the other hand, a song can take a long time — weeks or longer. That’s not because of any particular creative problem; that’s just how it is sometimes. In general, songs that take a long time isn’t an indication of any kind of problem. As I say, sometimes that’s just how it is.
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But what about those times when your mind has created many different musical fragments, but you can’t seem to pull those ideas together to make a complete song? You’re not even sure if all the ideas that are rolling around in your creative mind all belong to the same song!
So what can you do with all of these ideas? Are they a song in the making? And if they are, what do you do with all of these ideas to create a viable song?
Here are some ideas for taking fragments of musical ideas, and seeing if there’s more there:
- If you’ve got bits of lyric rolling about in your mind:
- Write down any catchy lines of lyric, words and/or word combinations you’re thinking of. Get them all into your computer, even if they don’t seem connected.
- Reorganize these words so that similar or related ones are near each other on the page. Read them over and over.
- Fill in missing thoughts between the words you’ve written down. Is there a narrative here? Does reorganizing them in this way help reveal a story or situation?
- Create a preliminary lyric that focusses on the story you’ve been revealing.
- If you’ve got bits of melody that you’ve been singing to yourself:
- Record yourself singing or humming any bits that your imagination has been playing around with.
- Any bits you’re singing will work better as a chorus melody if you instinctively sing them high in pitch. Verse melodies tend to be lower, so use your instincts and try to figure out where each melodic idea belongs.
- Improvise some chord progressions that support your melodic ideas. How much of whatever you’re imagining can be pulled together to form a verse-chorus section?
- If you’ve got a chord progression that won’t let go:
- Play the progression through on your guitar or keyboard, and try different voicings, higher and lower.
- Concentrate on changing the upper note of the chord progression each time you voice it differently, and see if you can coax a melody to appear. Each time you change that upper note, you’ll find new melodic ideas will occur to you.
- Change the tempo, the backing rhythms, the key, even the time signature, and try a new melodic idea each time you do. Improvisation is the most important part, and you’lll generate something quicker if you change your starting note each time.
The idea here is to find the element that pulls everything together. Keep in mind that though you might feel that the many ideas in your mind are unrelated, most of the time your imagination is actually trying to make sense of it all.
And in that regard, sometimes all it takes is to get it all down on paper, or recorded on your computer, and you’ll finally start to see the relationships between them. And that’s the start of what can eventually (finally) be a successful song.
“How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step by step, how to choose the chords that will work with your melody, how to substitute chords, and how to make more complex progressions work for you. Buy it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
When we talk about inspiration, we immediately think of the kind that comes from seeing waterfalls or gorgeous butterflies, or the inspiration that has as its source the emotions that come from considering the birth of a child or some other exciting life event. We get a feeling that makes us feel warm and excited, and we respond by wanting to put those emotions into music.
That’s a normal reaction for most humans. We become creative when we become excited, and it happens for us in a way that doesn’t happen for other species on this planet.
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But that kind of “externally-sourced” inspiration is only one way to get creatively excited, and I would argue not a very useful way. Not useful, because as you know, the excitement we feel from those kinds of events or situations is usually short-lived. After a day or two, it can be hard to generate excitement that would help you carry on with the songwriting process.
There is a better source of inspiration, and it comes from a strong work ethic. It may not seem to you that working hard could possibly generate creative excitement, but it can, and it does.
And it’s better than externally-sourced inspiration because it is the kind that regenerates with every small success you make. As you write, the excitement you feel from having something work well — even just some small fragment of melody, or a catchy line of lyric — inspires you to keep working.
Here are 5 tips that can help you balance externally-sourced inspiration with a strong work ethic:
- Don’t wait to be inspired to write. If you wait for inspiration, you’re wasting a lot of time. If the classical greats like Mozart and Beethoven, who wrote symphonies and operas, waited to be inspired, they’d have never gotten anything finished.
- See if a songwriting schedule will help you find the discipline you need. Most people who suffer regularly from writer’s block treat songwriting as if it’s something to do on the spur of the moment, with little pre-thought. A schedule will help by allowing you to get into a creative mood more easily.
- Work on your playing skills even while working hard on songwriting. You can become inspired by playing because your fingers will find short musical fragments that might work their way into your songs.
- When songs don’t seem to be happening, work on small ideas. If you find the notion of writing a full song just isn’t happening for you today, spend your time working on smaller ideas. Find a 3- or 4-chord progression you like, make a list of lines of lyric that you find catchy, even if you don’t know how they might work their way into a song. These little activities can keep you feeling successful.
- Get out and see the world — become curious! The more you experience in life, the more you’ll find those exciting moments that can give you short moments of inspiration. Though it’s not the kind to sustain you through a long songwriting process, it’s certainly helpful on days when even small successes are hard to find.
Having the verse and chorus in different keys is not rare if you consider the number of songs where the verse is mainly in minor, and then the chorus switches to the relative major.
Sometimes the minor-major relationship is a different one, like Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” (Stefani Germanotta, Rob Fusari), which has a verse in C minor, switching to a chorus in Ab major. But the idea is the same: minor moving to major.
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I want to focus, however, on songs with a verse that moves from a major key to another not-so-closely related key for the chorus. A song like “Penny Lane” (Lennon & McCartney), with a verse in B major and a chorus moving down to A major. How do you get something like that to work?
Songs in which the chorus jumps immediately to a new key are not very common, and they require considerable experimentation to get them to work. So here’s a simple step-by-step that will help you create your own.
There are lots of ways to do this, but this method below makes the assumption that both your verse and chorus are going to use a short, strong chord progression. In effect, what you’ll be doing is making up a progression that will work for your verse, and then transpose it to a new key and replicate it for the chorus.
- Create a simple chord progression for your verse. Since most of the time a verse progression will work by repeating it several times before getting to the chorus, this can be short, something like: I IV I V (C F C G).
- Transpose the progression up to a different key. This will take some experimenting until you find something you like, but here are a couple of possibilities you might like:
- Eb Ab Eb Bb
- G C G D
- Think about how to make a smooth transition from verse key to chorus key. Let’s say you’ve chosen Eb as the chorus progression (Eb Ab Eb Bb). Your verse progression will end on a G chord. You’ve got some options here. One is to do an abrupt modulation, which means you’ll simply jump directly into the new key, and I quite like that one. That would give you something like this: C F C G||Eb Ab Eb Bb… But you can also modify the final chord of your verse progression to give you something that will move into Eb major with a bit less of a bump. So changing the final G to Bb gives you a dominant chord of Eb, which will always make for a smooth transition: C F C Bb||Eb Ab Eb Bb…
- Think about how to make a smooth transition from the end of your chorus back to the original key (for your next verse). An abrupt transition might work here as well (Eb Ab Eb Bb||C F C G…), but you can change that final Bb chord to a G, which will make the switch back to C major easier. (Eb Ab Eb G||C F C G…)
Why would you ever think of changing key like this at all? The main strength of this technique is that it sounds like you’ve added a level of complexity to your chords, when in fact all the progressions are very simple ones. Changing key just makes it sound complex, and you’ve got the benefit of keeping all your progressions short and tonally strong.
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If you’re a successful landscape artist or photographer, you know the vital importance of a focal point. That’s the feature that immediately draws the viewer’s eye and establishes the artwork’s main subject.
Without a focal point, you’ve got a painting or photo that looks fine but keeps the viewer endlessly searching for purpose. Like staring at the Windows XP desktop image of the rolling green hill, a picture without a point of focus may give a warm fuzzy feeling, but nothing more.
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In songwriting — and you could argue in practically any form of creative art — a point of focus is equally crucial. The difference between a song an a painting is that a painting can be taken in almost instantaneously, even if it isn’t fully understood so quickly. But a song takes 3-4 minutes before its complete picture is revealed.
The problem songwriters face is that the song’s main point of focus might be any or all of the following:
- The chorus hook.
- A short, catchy chord progression.
- A melodic fragment.
- A payoff line.
- A rhythmic groove.
- Any number of other unique instrumental/lyrical/melodic features.
And it takes time. A great chorus hook requires the listener to wait until close to the 1-minute mark before it happens. A payoff line will usually be longer than that. So how do you keep a listener interested enough in your song that they’re still listening past the 1-minute mark?
Layered Points of Focus
The answer is in providing a set of layered points of focus. You need to ensure that your songs start with something that is enticing enough, even if it’s not the main point of focus. From there, each interesting point of focus acts as a kind of hook that grabs more attention. Here’s how that might work:
- Use a song intro that grabs attention. Incorporate a kind of intro hook that will lure the listener to keep listening. This means establishing interesting rhythms and instrumental motifs that sound catchy on their own, whether or not they have a lot to do with the main body of the song. (At the same time, never underestimate the power of starting without an intro at all.) Examples: “Satisfaction” (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards), “Poker Face” (Stefani Germanotta, Nadir Khayat)
- Once the intro is done, present a melodic fragment that’s captivating right from the start of the verse melody. No matter what happens after that, you’ve at least given the audience something catchy to listen to for the next few seconds. A great melodic fragment usually also means a finding chord progression that properly supports it. Using a melodic leap is a good idea. Example: “The Long and Winding Road” (Lennon & McCartney), “Somebody That I Used to Know” (Wally de Backer).
- Establish a powerful groove right away. If your song’s chorus is a sing-along/dance-along kind of thing, you’re wasting time if you wait for the chorus to have things really get going. Set something powerful up right away to get people moving, and then keep them moving. Example: “Uptown Funk!” (Jeff Bhasker, Philip Lawrence, Peter Hernandez, Mark Ronson, Nicholas Williams, Devon Gallaspy, Lonnie Simmons, Charles Wilson, Rudolph Taylor).
- Constantly build song energy as the verse moves along. One of the best ways to ensure people are still listening by the time the chorus happens is to build dynamics (i.e., get louder), and/or move the melody higher, and/or make the instrumentation busier. It’s hard to turn away from a song doing that. It’s an important duty for a good verse. Example: “How Deep Is Your Love” (Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb).
- Give a strong chorus hook as a kind of “reward for listening this far.” Like the landscape that has the captivating feature we notice right away, you’ll want to provide a strong chorus hook that finally does what a painting’s point of focus does: offer a reason for the song existing at all. Example: “Radioactive” (Alexander Grant, Ben McKee, Josh Mosser, Daniel Platzman, Dan Reynolds, Wayne Sermon).
Hi, I'm Gary Ewer. This blog has been my labour of love since 2008. You'll find the five most recent songwriting articles right here on this page, and if you want to browse through the more than 1500 posts in the archive, scroll to the bottom of the page.
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