When I’m writing original music — which is to say, composing, not arranging someone else’s tune — I practically always do some kind of melody-first method.
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The reason I always opt for creating a melody as a first step is this: if I create a melody, I find adding chords to be an easy step. The other way — getting a chord progression and then finding a compelling melody — is a method I find to be a lot harder.
I like having the melody first because I can use the chord progression stage to help craft the mood of the melody. If I want that melody to have a kind of melancholy feel, for example, I opt for lots of minor chords, and probably go for descending bass lines, etc.
It also allows me to come up with more interesting chord progressions more easily. Having the chords first makes me feel a bit “locked in” and improvisation is a bit more difficult for me.
Some writers fear that trying to come up with a melody when you don’t have the chords means your tune will have a kind of randomness, but I almost never feel that way. When I improvise on melodies, I find that my musical brain keeps things organized. I may not know where the melody is going to end up, but that doesn’t at all mean that I’m just going to create garbage.
If you’re interested in experimenting with a melody-first method, try this:
- Grab your guitar or other chording instrument.
- Strum a chord and sing the first note that comes to mind.
- Now sing a pattern of notes, maybe five to ten different pitches. (You’ll be pleased to notice that they’ll probably make some sort of musical sense!)
- Don’t worry about chords yet… Just try repeating (either exactly or approximately) that cell of notes,
- Keep going! With each little bit you create, ask yourself: if I heard this bit of melody on a recording, what might follow it?
- As you proceed, hold off creating chords for as long as possible. Be aware of where your melody is moving. Is it starting low and moving high? Is it made up of short repeating ideas, or do new ideas keep spinning out?
You’ve likely spent a good portion of your time as a songwriter thinking of melody as something that gets added to a chord progression. So this may feel strange, and may take you out of your comfort zone.
But that’s the great part about this process; if you want to become more creative, you really must move beyond your comfort zone and do something you’ve rarely done before.
Those steps above will get you started. And you’ll get a feel for when you’ve created enough that you can start experimenting with adding chords.
By the time you’ve done these 6 steps, you’ll have the makings of a verse or chorus melody. You can then start over to create the next section for your song.
Then you work on adding lyrics, and you’ll be well in your way to your first melody-first song!
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In the software industry, an “easter egg” is a hidden feature that only becomes visible when certain keys are pressed, or when the cursor passes over a certain part of the screen. It’s become an attribute of many programs, and it’s meant to be an entertaining add-on to the program.
People like discovering easter eggs because it’s like stumbling on a bit of treasure without even knowing that it’s there in the first place.
Songwriters are very familiar with the chorus hook, but there are other kinds to experiment with, and you will want to discover the power of layering various kinds of hooks in the same song. “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base“ shows you how it’s done.
There is a way in which songwriting can provide you with a similar opportunity to insert hidden features into music, even if we don’t typically use the term easter egg. Using a sample — a bit of recorded music from another artist — in the construction of a new song might be considered a kind of hidden feature, and it’s very common in the industry.
You might hide a different kind of feature, for example, putting together an instrumental track by assembling bits, note (or chord) by note. Example: “Love of My Life” (Freddie Mercury) uses a harp introduction that was created by Brian May pasting together single harp notes, chords and glissandos, so that it sounds as if it’s being played by a harpist.
Easter eggs within songs can be a great way to keep your fan base looking for something interesting from you. They think they’ve heard everything there is to hear in a song, and then suddenly they discover something they hadn’t noticed before.
I remember discovering that the last four brass section notes of Stravinsky’s epic ballet score, “The Firebird”, are the same as the first four notes in the bass section. I discovered this probably 5 years after first hearing this work, and it was exciting to know that I could still discover things after so many years of listening.
If you’re interested in trying to hide easter eggs within your songs, here are some ideas to try:
- Reverse a verse melody to create your chorus melody. Take your verse melody, and whenever it moves down, create a chorus melody by moving up by the same (or almost the same) intervals.
- Reverse a chord progression from a well known song. Take a song you love, and see if you can get the progression to sound good by moving backwards.
Example: Dm Fmaj7 Bb G7 Dm (“Southern Man” – Neil Young) becomes: Dm G7 Bb Fmaj7 Dm.
- Hide something in the lyric. This might be grabbing a bit of famous lyric, then modifying it for your own song, or using famous lyrics backwards. Doing something that won’t be immediately noticeable is often best, as it makes it less likely that your fans will discover it right away. And modifying it will be important, since it’s not legal to simply use someone else’s lyric as is.
- Borrow a melody from a classical work, or some other public domain song. Be careful — as with lyrics, it may seem clever to borrow a melody, but if it’s protected by copyright, you’ll have problems of the legal kind. Using public domain melodies (folk songs, classical tunes) can be a good way to find good melodies when you’re own creative abilities feel a bit lacking.
The more obscure you make your hidden features, the better will be the effect. If it takes people years, let’s say, to discover that you’ve cleverly hidden some feature of your song, the discovery of that easter egg becomes all the more powerful.
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Rhythm is a crucial part of the energy of music. When music is more rhythmically active, you feel an intensity that generates excitement, and that can be an important part of breathing life into a song.
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But it’s not quite as straightforward as that, because rhythm happens on different levels within a song. Among those many levels, there are two aspects of rhythm that stand out in practically every song:
- Backing instrumental rhythms. This is the kind of rhythmic treatment you pick up from the drums, rhythm guitar, keyboards and bass, for example. When production is rhythmically intense, audiences pick up an excitement and strength that is interpreted as power. When the music’s rhythm relaxes, the energy also relaxes.
- Vocal line rhythm. We perceive rhythm differently when it comes to the lead singer. In many songs, the vocal line is rhythmically more active in the verse than it is in the chorus. During the verse, the vocals often use busier rhythms, syncopation and other rhythmic techniques to go hand-in-hand with the pulse and accents (not to mention meaning) of the words. But during the chorus, rhythms tend to simplify, and vocal notes actually get a bit longer — less “busy” — and audiences pick up more emotional content.
Vocal line rhythm is a really important one, because the singer has the potential to connect most powerfully with an audience, usually more so than the instruments. And though we often think of how the singer is presenting the song (vocal style), the rhythms they’re required to sing is more important than you might think.
In most songs the difference is subtle. It’s not a case of hearing a really busy, complex rhythmic treatment in a verse, and then suddenly everything changes for the chorus.
Think of Carole King’s classic hit “You’ve Got a Friend” as a good example of how subtle this difference usually is. The verse and chorus rhythms are actually very similar, but you’ll hear in the chorus that the rhythm settles down, becomes a bit more predictable, and pairs up nicely with the groove of the song.
A more obvious example is John Legend’s “All of Me“; compare the rhythms of the vocal line in the verse with what happens in the chorus — complexity and syncopation giving way to a much more relaxed, predictable rhythmic treatment of the chorus. The transition is smooth as ice, but the differences are clear.
But why, if you’re trying to generate some energy in the vocal line, does it work to relax the vocal rhythms and switch to something more predictable and simplistic? Mainly because when a voice lingers on notes (particularly ones in which the crucial title words are found), we feel the emotional energy stronger than if the rhythms are short and intense. It’s all about how we connect with the voice.
So it’s a good aspect of your songwriting to look closely at, if you find that your song choruses just aren’t generating enough of an impact. You may need to look at the actual rhythms of the notes you’re singing during the chorus. There may be opportunity to intensify the emotional impact by elongating notes, particularly the ones that have the song title being sung.
A couple of years ago I did a video to describe this concept:
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How do you choose a song’s topic? For some, figuring out what to write about is one of the toughest parts of the process. There are lots of ways to approach it, and you might have several methods that you use interchangeably.
Song Topics That Lead to Conversational Lyrics
In one way, choosing a song’s topic might be similar to having a conversation with someone you’ve just met.
If you’re talking to a new acquaintance, you may find yourself thinking quickly every time they say something to you. You don’t want to just stand there, so you immediately try to say something that tags onto what they’ve just said. Then they respond to you, you say something back… and so it goes. When your conversation is done, you’ve hopefully had an entertaining few minutes.
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So these kinds of topics might be the kind that lead to story songs, or other uncomplicated expressions or observations:
They’re usually harmless, fun, and not the kinds of songs that elicit strong opinions or arguments.
Song Topics That Define Who You Are and What You Think
But then, there are ways in which song topics aren’t really like that at all. In a conversation with someone you’ve just met, you’re likely unwilling to unload — to tell them how you really feel about something. You’re not going to tell a stranger about how you just broke up with your girlfriend, for example.
But many songs do just that. In those kinds of songs, you’re not really conversing; it’s more a case of treating the song as a magnifying glass on the soul, and you invite others to observe and feel what you’re feeling. Love songs are like this.
In the same way, you might tell a stranger how you feel about the environment, or what you think of the politics of the day, if you’re also willing to accept the fact that they won’t agree with you. Because it’s not so much a conversation you’re having, it’s more an expression to the universe of who you are as a person:
- Imagine (Lennon)
- Addicted to Love (Robert Palmer)
- Hello (Adele Adkins, Greg Kurstin)
- This is America (Donald Glover, Ludwig Göransson, Jeffery Lamar Williams)
Most songwriters will do a bit of both, and I have always believed that the best writers are those who easily express who they are and what they think without a lot of worry.
There’s no one good way to choose a song’s topic. Topics lead to lyrics, and that‘s what connects to audiences. Audiences just want to feel something, and so whether it’s a song with “Penny Lane”-type lyrics, or one where you bare your soul, about the only thing that really matters is: did you cause your listeners to feel something?
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In sports, teams compete rather fiercely during their regular season to get home field/stadium advantage in the playoffs. There’s a belief that playing at home offers a benefit, and that a team is more likely to win the series if they’re playing in front of a supportive home crowd.
There’s actually ample evidence that suggests the opposite, by the way. Some studies have shown that in critical series-ending games, the away team is more likely to win.
But that point aside, let’s at least agree that players on home teams get a huge psychological boost by hearing 20,000 fans or more screaming their approval when something good happens. That’s just basic psychology. We all need approval — someone who’ll cheer for us when we do something right.
In the music world we get to hear it all the time if we’re performers, and it’s nice. Not everyone gets that kind of public display of approval for doing their job. If you’re job is to empty garbage cans, there’s no one to stand by the side of the road and fist-pump when you empty a full can into the truck.
And in songwriting itself, there’s not really a lot of cheering going on. I’d argue that we cheer for performances, while we appreciate the song.
The question is, in the world of creative arts like songwriting, is appreciation enough? Do you ever feel that while you like the fact that people might cheer for your band, that no one is really noticing the work you’ve put into writing the songs?
Songwriting, especially if it’s not something done in partnership with other songwriters, can be a rather solitary activity. There’s usually little fanfare or even acknowledgement when the song is completed.
A finished song is a significant achievement: it’s a unique display of human creativity and musicianship. But like an athlete on a sports team, you’ll get your best work if you’re feeling motivated. So where do you find your motivation?
All evidence points to the fact that in the creative arts, the strongest source of inspiration and motivation comes from the act of songwriting itself. In other words, you’ll get your biggest thrill by hearing separate songwriting ideas come together within the same song.
You’re never going to get a cheering crowd when that happens, of course. But you do get a shot of creative adrenaline as you write. That kind of inspiration is better than any other kind, because it creates itself moment by moment as you are in the process of songwriting.
Sure, you’re not going to have a screaming crowd high-fiving each other when you do something well as a songwriter. But you already know that, so you go for the next best thing: set a regular writing schedule, and accept the eventual cheers of the crowd when they hear the performance of your song as, at least in part, cheering for the song itself.
Each eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundles shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great. Get a free copy of “Use Your Words! Developing a Lyrics-First Songwriting Process”
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.
Please feel free to leave a comment at the end of any article. I love reading what others are thinking about music.
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