You've Got a Chord Progression- How Do You Create a Melody?

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, Senior Instructor, Dalhousie University, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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Many songwriters start with chords, then create a melody as they strum on those changes. But most texts that teach songwriting deal with how to add chords to an existing melody. So the question is: how do you take this progression you’ve created and come up with a melody that works with it? I’ve come up with a 5-step procedure for doing this, and it works well even if you don’t have a strong music theory background.

There are two main dangers to creating a melody after the chords:

  1. The melody often uses lots of arpeggios (chord-based leaps), making it a bit boring and predictable.
  2. The melody may use the same note over and over again, ignoring the importance of a high point.

So be sure that your melody has shape – an enticing contour that propels the song forward.

Here a procedure you can follow for creating a melody that works with your chord progression:

  1. Play the progression many times so that it becomes very predictable to you.
  2. Begin the process of melody creation by humming one note that works with that progression, moving it up or down only to allow it to fit with your chosen chords. You’ve now got a flat melody that needs some contour.
  3. If this is a verse melody you’re creating, consider using higher pitches once you pass the midpoint of the melody. In other words, you want the higher points of this melody to occur near the end of the verse, preparing the chorus. You’ll also want to have a point in your verse that seems to be a high point, a climactic moment. Chorus melodies should usually be placed higher than verse melodies. So do the same procedure to come up with your chorus melody, again paying attention to the need for a climactic point. Once you’ve done this step, you should have a mainly stepwise verse and chorus melody.
  4. While stepwise melodies are good, you’ll want to have one or two leaps upward to inject some energy into your melody. This works well after the midpoint of each melody. Leaps make melodies more memorable, but too many actually have the opposite effect, so be careful.
  5. Once you’ve created a melody, don’t be afraid to go back and change things, alter the notes of the melody and modify the general shape if necessary. This method works like sculpting… keep working away until the shape you’re looking for starts to present itself.

As you create your verse and chorus melodies, you’ll usually find that they start to acquire a life of their own. In other words, once a melody starts to unfold, there will seem to be a logical way for it to continue. Use your instincts, and go with your gut.

The method above works because it takes the pressure off you to answer the question, “What note goes with this chord…?” You’re using your ear as the determining factor, which will always create the best melodies.

As you play your progression, don’t forget about harmonic rhythm. That’s very important. Harmonic rhythm is the regularity of your chord changes, and you’ll want that to be fairly constant. Chords that change according to a regular rhythmic pattern is a crucial part of setting up your song’s groove.

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