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Working out a chord progression is one of the most popular ways of starting the songwriting process. It’s not hard to see why. Getting a chord progression working usually means getting a basic rhythm happening as well, and the rhythmic pulsing of a set of chord changes can kindle all sorts of other musical ideas. But starting with the chord progression can also cause problems for your song, the main one being that the melody can sound a bit shapeless and neglected.
There’s no problem starting a song with the chords, as long as you also commit to spending a good deal of time working out a melody that listeners will find memorable and engaging.
So why does a chords-first song often result in an aimless, uninspired melody?
It happens because though you’ve got a progression that works, where are the melodic ideas? It’s important to think about this, because nobody goes around singing chord progressions to themselves. They do sing melodies, however. So it’s crucial to get a melody going that doesn’t just fit the chords, but demands attention.
The following are some ideas for making sure that your melodies in a chords-first song take centre stage. Each idea helps to create melodic shapes and motifs that you can then start to assemble into a working melody.
Repeat your progression (or set up a loop) and do the following:
- Improvise a melody that centres mainly on one or two notes. Move around, but keep coming back to the original note(s). This will help establish a melodic “plateau” around which the chords will move. (You could imagine, for example, that the verse of “Single Ladies” could have been started this way.)
- As in step 1, find a single pitch or two that works well with the progression, then insert an upward-moving leap. That melodic leap can help in the development of a lyric, as emotion-laden words work well when they’re placed high in a melody. The leap upward creates energy, and gives the song a hook-like feature that’s memorable. (Think of the chorus of “I Can’t Dance” – Genesis)
- Try improvising on a high single pitch or two, and look for moments to insert a downward-moving leap. It’s a reverse of the previous idea, and because verses and choruses often exhibit opposite motifs, it might be useful in combination with step 2.
- Improvise arpeggiated triads (i.e., the various notes of the various chords) as you play through your progression. You’d be surprised to discover that many melodies actually use a lot of chordal leaps. The best example of a chord-based melody is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It really can work, especially as a starting point.
- Improvise a short stepwise melody on the first chord or two of your progression, then move that shape up or down to fit the next chord or two. In other words, look for ways to incorporate repetition into your melodic ideas. Repetition is crucial to making a melody memorable. Sometimes the same 2 or 3 notes will work throughout the entire progression. (“The Lazy Song“, by Bruno Mars, is a good model.)
Not all of these ideas will produce useable melodic bits that you’ll want to use. But by trying these five ideas, you’re diverting your attention from your chord progression to a part of your song that’s vital to its success: a solid, working melody.
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