It’s probably true that more songwriters come up with a chord progression, in whole or in part, before they come up with the melody that goes along with it. These “chords first” people would probably say that they find it hard or impossible to come up with a good melody unless they’re hearing the chords underneath. But is that the best way to write a song?
In my experience, coming up with the chord progression first has some pros and some cons:
- By vamping away on those chords, it becomes a little easier to imagine a hook for your song.
- Ensures that the underlying “bed” that’s formed by a chord progression works.
- Isolates the progression so that you can develop it into something that really works.
- The intro of a chords-first song is often related to the chord pattern, which can be boring.
- The melody may lack an interesting contour or any interesting features if you’re not careful.
- Chords-first songs often have melodies that use lots of chordal leaps, and not so much stepwise motion, making the melody harder to remember.
But the simple solution to any of the cons listed above is… don’t let them happen. There’s nothing wrong with taking a good progression and then creating a melody that works with it. It’s like a landscaper finding a good piece of land, and then designing a house that really makes it work. But you’ve got to make sure that your intro is interesting: find elements of your melody to make the intro really work.
Also, make sure that your melody uses lots of stepwise (or scale) passages. The melody will be easier for the listener to remember.
In short, once you’ve come up with a good chord progression, it’s time to move on to other important aspects of the song. Spend time with your melody and lyrics and really get them working.
So the real answer to whether the chords or the melody should come first is… either can work, as long as no one aspect of the song is neglected.
-Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:
Songwriting tips! Write Better Chords, Melodies and Hooks!.