For most songwriters, songwriting means starting either with a chord progression above which you’ll be adding a melody, or starting with a melody underneath which you’ll be adding chords. You can’t get around it: the best songs are the ones that successfully unite melodic ideas with harmonic progressions. You can unknowingly be creating situations where the melody notes technically work with the chords, but don’t sound right. So what are those situations? Here are ways to avoid five of the most common errors when joining melodies to chords.
1) Avoid constant parallel motion between melody notes and bass notes. A chord root is the letter name of the chord; so the root of a D7b11 chord is D. Usually, the chord root is the bass note. If you find that your melody and bass are always going in the same direction, you can weaken the effect of your melody or chord progression. Try mixing up directions. If a phrase in y0ur melody moves upward, try choosing chords that make the bassline move downward.
2) Keep a regular (or almost regular) pattern to how often you change chords. That pattern is called the “harmonic rhythm”. You’ll want your song to settle on a pattern that shows some sort of regularity… changing chords every four beat, or every eight beats, etc, and try to stick to that for at least 80% of your song.
3) In most cases, favour predictable over unpredictable chord changes. Unpredictable progressions are ones that go in directions that isn’t the likely choice, and a few of those in a song can really spice it up. But listeners need to feel that there is, most of the time, an underlying logic to your harmonic choices. In particular, you can make tricky melodies easier to sing if you choose those moments to offer a solid, anticipated choice for harmony.
4) Faster melodies with lots of notes work best with fewer chords. Related to point # 2 above, you’ll find that fast melodies and quick chord changes, with a large repertoire of chord choices, makes music sound panicky and frantic. If your melody/song tempo is fast, with lots of notes, use that as an opportunity to sit longer on chords and trim the number of chords you use.
5) Be mindful how you use dissonance. Dissonance will happen when the melody note at any particular time doesn’t normally fit with the chord you’re using. Such “wrong notes” are called non-chord-tones, and they can add nice flavour to a musical phrase But you need to be careful how you use non-chord-tones. Passing tones happen all the time in music; if your chord is C, and you sing C-D-E as your melody above it, the D is a non-chord-tone because it doesn’t exist in the C chord.
There are other non-chord-tones that work nicely, but will flop if you don’t resolve them properly. Two to try are: a) Suspensions. If your melody forms a 4th above the bass note, the melody should then move down to form a 3rd; and b) Appoggiaturas. An appogiatura happens if your melody leaps upward, then, instead of hitting the note you want, you hit the note above it, and then move down to the right note. (Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” is a perfect example of an appoggiatura).
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is one of a set of 6 songwriting e-books that will show you how to write great songs, harmonize your melodies, and give you hundreds of chord progressions in the process.
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