Creating Song Melodies From a Chord Progression

Chords-first songs can result in boring melodies. Here’s how to avoid that problem.


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Maroon 5 - PayphoneThe reason why so many songwriters find it easy to start the writing process by creating a chord progression is that you don’t need to start with something unique. No progression that you create is going to be brand new. Every progression that’s worth using has been used before. And that’s completely fine. It’s amazing how many great songs make it to the top, built on chord progressions that have been used hundreds and sometimes thousands of times before.

Starting with a chord progression allows you to do several things:

  1. Set up a tempo and style of performance for the song.
  2. Establish the basic “tonal language” of the song.
  3. Give hints and ideas for what will work as a melody.

It’s that 3rd point that can actually be a challenge. There is a danger in starting with chords first: the melody can sometimes be treated as a neglected element of the song, because other aspects (tempo, performance style, tonal language) get established first.

Consequently, chords-first songs run the danger of having boring melodies that lack direction and contour.

If you’ve got a chord progression that you really like, you can avoid the problem of boring melodies by considering the following tips:

  1. The Climactic High Point. Remember that each melody you write (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, and any other optional section) will benefit from having a high point, a climactic moment that usually coincides with the highest note.
  2. The Chorus’s High Point: If your song uses a chorus, its high point should be higher than the verse high point.
  3. The Verse’s High Point: If your song doesn’t use a chorus, the verse’s high point should be at approximately the two-thirds point, with the eventual end of the verse often being lower.
  4. Repeating Melodic Cells and Rhythms. Melodies are easier for audiences to remember if they use rhythms and melodic shapes that repeat. As one of many possible examples, listen to Maroon 5’s “Payphone”, and make note of the many short repeated musical phrases, and the subtle use of the climactic high point in each phrase.

Considering the two important qualities of climactic point and repeating elements within a melody will help cure the problem of boring melodies in chords-first songs. As with “Payphone”, make sure that in addition to repeating lines and phrases, you’ve thought about how to make one note a little bit higher than the others. That high note gives your melody a sense of focus, and creates all-important song energy.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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