Writing Better Melodies Using the Chords-First Process

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle” contains several eBooks that are meant to get you moving quickly in your songwriting process. They’ll give you progressions, formulas for creating your own, and all the info you need to add chords to an existing melody.

Many songwriters love the chords-first songwriting process, for several reasons:

  1. Chords easily create a mood. Even just getting two chords working gives you an important emotional base that can serve as a launching pad for the rest of the elements of your song.
  2. Chords make it easy to get a rhythmic feel happening. Setting up a rhythmic groove as a first step is fine. But creating those rhythms once you’ve got a chord progression can enhance musical meaning in powerful ways. With chords already in place, adding rhythms practically tells you what the song is about.
  3. Chords can imply melody, in the sense that it limits (in the best sense of that word) your choices for what your melody could be. Narrowing down melody choices by setting up chords first helps you compose something that really partners well.

However, as I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, a chords-first process comes with a kind of musical caution: chords paired up with rhythms sometimes gives the songwriter the impression that the song is basically done. (Spoiler: it’s not.)

In the pop music industry, a topliner will take an instrumental track — those chords and rhythms — and create an enticing melody. But if you’re writing “old-school” — where you are the composer from start to finish — you are the one that must compose that melody that really works well.

And that’s where the chords-first process can lead to problems. There’s no denying that a song that doesn’t have a great rhythmic-instrumental track underneath has practically no value in today’s pop music world. But a great instrumental track without a great melody has a problem: there’s not much that can bring an audience back.

These days, if you are actually working regularly in the pop music industry, you’ll know that the vast majority of songs are completed by topliners who take a great instrumental track and add their melody and lyrics above it. In today’s world, toplining is every bit as important as the produced tracks underneath it. A song with lousy instrumentals dies, and so does a song with a lousy melody.

Since melodies often get ignored in the chords-first songwriting process, here are some tips to help:

  1. Create chords, and then play them as many ways as possible. Try different tempos, different kinds of backing rhythms, and create different moods. Let those chords help dictate which direction your song is going to take.
  2. Allow the feel of the chords and instrumental track dictate what the song’s about. Let the sound of the music guide you.
  3. Improvise melodic ideas over the chords. Remember to allow repetition to play an important role. Find a melodic cell that you really like, and see what happens when you repeat it. How about repeating it higher, or lower? Find the melodic shape you like, and keep improvising.
  4. If you run out of melodic ideas, revoice the chords. Go back to your instrumental tracks and move the voicings of the chords higher and lower. The newer voicings may imply melodic ideas you hadn’t thought of before.
  5. Sing your melody without instrumentals. This is where you get to hear your tune with nothing but its own structure to support it. A melody with a great instrumental track underneath needs to work even if there’s nothing underneath. If you’ve got a melody that sounds great sung with no accompaniment, you’ve got a melody that will be a winner once you add the instrumentals back in.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Writing a Song From a Chord ProgressionTo discover the most important secrets of the chords-first songwriting process, read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.” Get it now, along with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions.”

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Lyrics Easy, Melody Hard?

If you find it hard to create a melody that works with your lyric, it might be that you find the entire package of the musical side of things (melody, chords, rhythms, etc.) to be difficult. Some lyricists are good at creating images, and saying much with few words, but when it comes time to take the step of making melodies that bring those words to life, it’s hard to even get started.

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If this describes you, here’s a set of steps that might get things finally moving for you. They start with making sure your lyric is actually ready for being put to a tune:

  1. Find the inherent rhythm in the words you’ve created. Melodies will often happen easier if there’s a beat running underneath. So spend some time reading your lyric while tapping your foot or slapping your knees, or both. Be creative — try different ways of reading, different implied time signatures, and just generally get a feel for how the words flow.
  2. Speed up and slow down your reading. Most songs will feature words of quick delivery for a verse, and then everything simplifies and locks into a stronger groove for the chorus hook. So make sure the bits that you expect to be the chorus feel hook-like. Your chorus should have two or three words that feel fun to read. They fly off the tongue and are catchy to listen to.
  3. Take advantage of the natural up and down of the way we say words. English is not a monotone language. Words rise and fall in pitch as a way of enhancing expression and implying deeper meaning. So use that natural shape as you begin to create melodies.
  4. Melodies don’t exist without chords being suggested. Most song melodies suggest chords by looking at the notes that happen on strong beats. Sometimes melodies are hard to imagine because you aren’t imagining the chords that would support it. So you might find that a good first step in creating a melody is to come up with a short chord progression that gets played while you speak your lyric out loud. Different progressions suggest different moods, so here are some to try: C-Bb-C (I-bVII-I); C-F-Dm (I-IV-ii); C-Eb-F-C (I-bIII-IV-I); Am-G-Am (vi-V-vi); Am-Em-G-Am (vi-iii-V-vi). Choose one, start strumming, and then chant your lyric. If you feel that you’d like certain words to move higher, the chords should lock you into some note that will work.
  5. Read your lyric in a lower-pitched voice for your verse and a higher-pitched voice for your chorus. This follows the general shape and contour of what most songs do: they start low in the verse and then rise to offer the highest notes in the chorus. Reading this way can help to imply melodic shapes that make sense and work with your song’s form.

These ideas are just starters, of course. The neat thing about creating melodies for your lyrics is that you’ll find that music can sometimes speak louder than words. In other words, you might find that once you get a bit of melody working, that you find you want to tweak your lyric just a bit, as you feel different emotions coming forward in the music.

In that regard, writing songs is always a collaboration between various song elements. There are no rules, just principles and guidelines.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting”“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle includes a copy of “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression.” If you find that coming up with chord progressions as a first step leaves your melodies sounding lame, this is the eBook for you.

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Breaking Free from 4/4 Time in Your Songwriting

Since the vast majority of songs (probably 98% or more) that make it to the charts in any genre use a time signature of 4/4, we can surmise that producers think that that most common of time signatures is part of a winning formula.

Most of the time professional producers get these things right, but that’s certainly not to say that there’s no room for experimentation when it comes to the choice of what we call a song’s meter.

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A 4/4 time signature, also called common time, simply means that the music has been organized to alternate in a strong beat-weak beat fashion. It’s a long time between hit songs before you’ll hear anything that happens in a different time signature.

Certainly in the older blues songs, 6/8 or 12/8 time was relatively common. Try this: Listen to Ella Fitzgerald singing “St. Louis Blues”, and you’ll see that 12/8 feels quite natural when you chant “one-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a” along with Ella’s singing. In essence, though, 12/8 a 4/4 time signature with triplet subdivisions of the beat.

Choosing a different time signature often has a strong impact on the basic feel of a song, and that’s shy experimenting with meter can be so valuable.

Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'” is in 3/4 time, but this is where the whole time signature thing can get a bit muddy. Sure, it sounds like 3/4 (STRONG-weak-weak), but if you count the same pattern that you used while listening to “St. Louis Blues” (“one-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a…”), you’ll see that that works also. You could transcribe the Dylan song in 12/8.

But that’s getting a little off-topic here. All I mean to do with this post is to convince you that there are other time signatures to try other than the basic common time 4/4. There’s a comprehensive Wikipedia article, “List of musical works in unusual time signatures,” that lists hundreds of songs, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to try to create my own list. But you may want to check these ones out:

  1. 3/4 time: Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (the verse)
  2. 5/4 time: 15 Step (Radiohead) If you find the beat hard to pick up with this one, listen to the chorus-like section at 1’15” – It’s a bit easier to pick it up in that section.
  3. 5/4 time: Everything’s Alright (Andrew Lloyd Webber) from Jesus Christ Superstar
  4. 7/4 time: Lazy Lightning (Grateful Dead). This live version includes a count-in which makes it easier to pick up the time signature.

Have you experimented with odd time signatures? Feel free to comment, and leave a link to your song so we can all have a listen.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a MelodyHave a  great melody, but stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done, with suggestions for chord substitutions that might work as well. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

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Building Musical Energy In Your Song’s Pre-Chorus With the Right Chord Progression

A verse’s chord progression is sometimes short and strong, sometimes long and wandering. But no matter what its character, or how long or short it is, it usually does one important thing: it aims for the first chord of the chorus.

Sometimes a verse will start in a key that’s different from the chorus. Often it sits in the same key as the chorus. Sometimes you’ll find songs where the verse and the chorus use the same progression, like Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (1967).

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Occasionally, you’ll write a song where it feels like you got to the chorus too soon. It might be because:

  1. the verse is just too short for comfort;
  2. the verse melody is very repetitious or simple;
  3. the end of the verse melody is too far away from the starting notes of the chorus.

Whatever the reason, songwriters often solve that problem by inserting an optional section between the verse and chorus called a pre-chorus. The main duty of a pre-chorus section is to smooth out the transition from verse to chorus, or at least to balance the form of the song so that there’s a sensible energy build that makes the chorus sound more welcoming.

There’s no one good definition for what a pre-chorus should be. It can be as short as a bar, or it can be longer — 8 or more bars long. I often point to the hit song “Firework” sung by Katie Perry as a good recent example of a pre-chorus, simply because it demonstrates in a “textbook” kind of way what the pre-chorus is there for.

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In that song, you hear the melody start to rise through the pre-chorus, energy start to build, and when the chorus finally happens, it sounds as though we’ve been waiting for it.

Pre-chorus Chords

The chord progression can often play an important role in what a pre-chorus should be doing. Since a verse progression is supposed to target the first chord of the chorus, it’s an important part of the musical energy of a song that the pre-chorus do the same thing: it needs to aim relentlessly for the chorus.

So how do you do that? One of the best ways is to ensure that the last chord of the pre-chorus moves strongly to the chorus, often in a dominant-tonic relationship. That means ending the pre-chorus on a V-chord and starting your chorus on a I-chord. That’s the dominant-tonic relationship.

But you’ll get a similarly strong moment if you end the pre-chorus on a IV-chord or even a ii-chord. Here are some examples in C major:

Last chord of Verse or pre-chorus | First chord of Chorus

V|I   G|C
ii|I  Dm|C

The reason for ending your pre-chorus on V, IV or ii is that it sounds pleasantly incomplete. It leaves the audience feeling like they need to hear something stronger. That something stronger happens at the start of the chorus, often the I-chord.

Using Dominant Pedal Point

Here’s a neat trick that will intensify the feeling of the end of the pre-chorus needing the first chord of the chorus: use a dominant pedal.

A dominant pedal simply means that no matter what chords you choose for your pre-chorus, you place the dominant (i.e., the 5th note) in the bass and keep it there. As the chords change through the pre-chorus, that dominant note increases musical energy.

Play through the following progression. Then try playing it keeping the dominant note in the bass and listen to the difference:

F  C  Dm  G  |F  C  Dm  G  ||C

Click on the play button below. You’ll hear that the first 4 bars play each chord in normal root position, with the root of each chord as the lowest-sounding note. Then, the next 4 bars show the difference when you place the dominant note as the lowest note. I think you’ll hear the increase of musical anticipation — musical momentum.


No matter what chords you choose for your pre-chorus, the main objective of a pre-chorus is to make the chorus sound welcome. The best way to do that is to build musical energy. In this post we concentrated on building energy via the chord progression, but you can do something similar by making the music louder, thickening the instrumental texture, and/or moving the melody higher.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter. Hooks & Riffs“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks and RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.



Posted in Chord Progressions, songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , .

Identifying Your Songwriting Achilles’ Heel

In typical usage, an Achilles’ heel is a weakness. But it’s a little more than that. To have an Achilles’ heel means that, in the midst of what seems to be many obvious strengths, you’ve got one weakness that threatens to bring you down.

That term may be on its way to becoming antiquated. I don’t hear it being used as often now as it used to be, but it’s a very useful one. It comes from Greek mythology: Achilles was the son of the Greek goddess Thetis. To give him strength, she dipped him in the waters of the River Styx, offering him protection from his enemies.

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But holding him by the heel as she dipped him meant that his heel was left vulnerable. And according to the myth, he was shot in the heel with a poisonous arrow and died.

It’s a very useful metaphor to describe that area of weakness that might be plaguing you — your area of vulnerability. In spite of all of your musical strengths, you may have that one area that you’ve always found difficult — one that threatens to bring you down.

Most of the time, it’s usually a good thing to admit your failings. After all, we can’t all be good at everything, and admitting that you’ve always found, let’s say, lyrics to be the trickiest part of your songwriting process can be a healthy admission.

The Weakest Link

But there’s another more sobering way to look at your Achilles’ heel. That one area of weakness in the midst of all your obvious strengths might be bringing your entire songwriting level down.

That can mean that even though your melodies sound wonderful, you’ve got weak lyrics that are distracting audiences. They can’t get to the point where they enjoy your melodies because they’re trying to deal with your words.

So an Achilles’ heel might have the effect of killing any chance you have of building on your fan base. It’s a “weakest link” scenario.

When people judge your songs, they’re actually judging not just your songwriting abilities, but the entire production package. And in fact, most listeners can’t distinguish between a problem that’s related to production, and one that’s strictly a songwriting weakness.

Some typical songwriting problems that might be your Achilles’ heel:

  1. Your melodies don’t support the meaning of your lyrics. When lyrics become emotional, for example, you’ll want to consider moving melodies higher to take advantage of the more emotive range of your voice. To read more about the structure of song melodies, check out this post: “Stepping and Leaping Through Song Melodies.”
  2. Your lyrics don’t make sense, or aren’t connecting with your audience. You’re trying to describe a complex state of mind or situation, but there are awkward moments particularly as you move from one song section to the next.
  3. Your chords don’t properly support the melody. There are weaker, more fragile moments in your chords that interrupt the flow of the music.

A couple of typical production problems:

  1. Your songs are too long.
  2. There’s a general unpolished sound with regard to your recording. There might be something amiss with the mix, or even just the performance in general.

Any one of these can be your Achilles’ heel. They can take a song that might otherwise be excellent, and bring it down to the point where you lose audience over it.

So if you’ve got that one area of your songwriting process that you admit is something that needs work, the time is now to start fixing it. It may not just be a weakness — it could be your Achilles’ heel.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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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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