Starting the songwriting process with a chord progression might be easier, but easier doesn’t mean better.
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You hear a lot about the “killer chord progression” in songwriting discussions, but it’s a bit of a myth. There are certainly progressions that really work well, but frankly, it’s hard to hum chords. It’s easy to hum melodies. Songs that have ascended to hit status have usually done so more because of the success of the melody than the success of the chords. Chords, when done properly, will support a great melody, not replace it in importance. Having said that, it’s rather easy to start songs by creating a basic progression, and it’s why it’s become such a crutch to struggling songwriters.
If you look at the history of melody writing and chord progressions, you’ll see that melodies always came first, and that chord progressions came later, as a way of supporting melodies. But if you’re like many songwriters, starting with the melody feels a bit scary, as if your melody might simply wind up being a wandering line that doesn’t really make sense.
Starting a song with a melody first, however, shouldn’t be such a problem for you. Let’s look at some simple steps that can get you started creating songs by generating the melody first:
- Focus on writing pentatonic melodies. A pentatonic melody is one that uses only 5 notes per octave. The most common major-key pentatonic scale uses the following scale degrees: 1,2,3,5,6 (i.e., C-D-E-G-A).
- Create a short melodic fragment, based on the C pentatonic scale, of 6-to-10 notes in length. Here’s an example: C-D-E-C-A-G-A-E-D-C. –LISTEN– (opens in a new browser window)
- Use the most common chords from C major to accompany the melody. You’ll notice that pentatonic melodies are easy to harmonize. They seem to work with almost any chords you can come up with. –LISTEN–
As you can see, your melodies can work very well if you try taking a small fragment and repeat it 3 or 4 times, changing the supporting harmonies underneath it. And while you’ll probably want to do more in a melody than simply repeat the same melodic shape over and over again, it should be reassuring to know that most good melodies make use of repetition as an important structural element.
Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a good example of a song where the series of melodies that happen make great use of repetition. And one of the benefits of melodies that use repetition is that they become easier for people to remember.
So if you’re really wanting to develop your abilities to write melodies, start with melodies that use the pentatonic scale, and think about repetition as a beneficial element.
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