I wish more songwriters would do the melody-first method. Coming up with the melody after endless strumming of chords can often result in a tune that is directionless and uninspiring. What probably scares writers off of writing a melody first is… how do you harmonize it?
Getting a bit of understanding with regard to chord theory is always a great idea. If you can’t read music, you might feel tempted to resort to a kind of random process of applying chords to melody. But good songwriting is not usually a random process. And while through the random process you may eventually come up with chords that sort of work, it’s better to understand why certain chords harmonize certain notes, and how chords should ideally progress.
Here are some tips for adding chords to your melody:
1. Every song needs a basic harmonic rhythm. It’s the frequency of the chord changes. For many songs, chords will change every four to eight beats. Determine what it will be for your own song. This usually means identifying the time signature for your song. If your song exhibits a continuous STRONG-weak-STRONG-weak pattern, you’re probably in 4/4 time.
2. Identify the key of your melody. Sometimes the first and quite often the last notes of your melody will be the key note (tonic) of your song. Once you know the key, you’ll be able to identify the three chords that you’ll use the most: I, IV and V of that key (for example, in A major, you’ll find that A, D and E will be the chords that work best.
3. Chords will usually change on strong beats. This means that if your chords change every 8 or 4 beats, you’ll want to change chords on beat 1 — the strongest beat. For a song where the harmonic rhythm is every two beats, you’ll want to change chords on beats one and three of every bar.
4. Identify the melody note on the strong beat. Usually the note or two after it will also offer a good clue as to what the chord should be. Let’s say your melody has the notes A and C# at the beginning. These are two notes from the A chord, and it’s a safe bet to use that chord. But you’ll also find that the notes A and C# also exist in F#m, so consider that chord as well.
5. In general, your chord progressions will start on the tonic chord, then go to the IV-chord, moving on to the V-chord, then return to the I-chord. There are other chords you can use, of course, but that I – IV – V pattern will be a workhorse that will work well for you. You’ll find that for verses, starting on a vi-chord can add a nice contrast to chorus harmonies that typically start on the I-chord.
6. The faster your song, the less frequent your chord changes should be. Changing chords frequently in a fast song makes the song sound frantic, and so unless you’re looking for that effect, make chord changes less frequent in faster tempos.
If you don’t know what those Roman numerals mean, or if you want to learn the more complete story behind why some chords work better than other ones in your song, my e-books “How to Harmonize a Melody”, “Essential Chord Progressions”, “More Essential Chord Progressions” and “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting- Chord Progression Formulas” will explain it all to you in great detail, and will provide you with pages and pages of chord progressions you can use right now in your songs.
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