Good Melodies Start By Imagining a Short, Catchy Fragment

Every composer of music approaches the task differently, and values the many different components of music differently. For me, melody is a key ingredient. I always feel that if I can get a melody working first, I have a better chance of getting everything else coming together quicker.

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As I write music, whether that’s a song, a movement from something classical that I’m writing, or anything else, it’s melody I focus on first. There are many ways to start the songwriting process with a melody. For me, here are some ways I get the melodic juices flowing:

  1. Go for a walk, and hum random note combinations until something sticks. Try this, and you’ll notice that “random” doesn’t mean “shapeless.” You’ll see that usually we hum melodic ideas that already have a sense of shape — a sense of line. That’s important. You’ll possibly be aware of chords that you’re imagining as well, and that’ll help for later, once you’re putting your song together.
  2. Piano Keyboard - Chord SubstitutionsPlay a single chord on a keyboard, and hum a melodic idea that works with it. I don’t come up with a chord progression in this process; I simply play one chord. That one chord centres my thinking and gets me imagining in a certain direction. I play the chord and improvise-sing a bit of melody to myself. If nothing useful comes to me, I play that chord again and start on a different note. If that still doesn’t produce anything, I start singing on the same note again, but move in a different direction. Eventually, something works.
  3. Guitar, paper & pencil, smartphonePlay a known melody backwards. This is a fun trick, and works best if you read and write musical notation. Take a melody you like, perhaps one of your favourite songs, and write down the first 5 or 6 notes of it. Now try singing that melody backwards using your own rhythms and lyrics. A good melody won’t necessarily work when sung in reverse, so it takes some experimenting.
  4. Switch from major to minor, and/or vice versa. If you’ve got a melodic idea that works but you just don’t like it much, try switching the mode. If you’ve done something in major, switch to minor and see what you think. You’ll often pick up a new mood or aura from a melody where the tonality is shifted to the opposite mode.

Great Melody Ideas Can Start With a Short Snippet

All of these ideas will result in providing you with a snippet — a short, musical phrase that’s going to need more. But one of the trickiest parts of writing good song melodies can be coming up with that initial germ of an idea, something that you can build on.

Why is it so important to get that short idea working first? It’s mainly because if you listen to most songs, the main melody usually features a short idea which is repeated over and over again, either exactly or approximately.

Melodies that demonstrate the use repetition in this way: “Born in the U.S.A.” (Springsteen), “Just the Way You Are” (Bruno Mars), “Rude” (MAGIC!) – but really, almost every good melody has repetition as a key ingredient.

Once you’ve got that short musical phrase, your next step is to accompany yourself with a guitar or keyboard, set up a groove, and change chords as you sing it over and over to yourself. Once you’ve done that, you’ve now got something close to an entire verse or chorus melody.

And it all starts with that one short musical idea.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

Once you’ve got your song’s melody working, explore all the chord possibilities with “How To Harmonize a Melody” – It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle. Shows you how to harmonize tunes, step-by-step, and includes sound files so you can listen to the examples.

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