Creating Good Song Melodies From a Chord Progression

A great chord progression means nothing if the melody is unremarkable.

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U2 - With Or Without YouIf you like to start the songwriting process by strumming chords, you’ll probably notice that creating melodies that go with those chords is not always easy. One of the most common problems with creating melodies after chord progressions is that the melodies often sound like aimless wandering.

In other words, just because you’ve got a chord progression that you like, that doesn’t automatically mean that the melody you come up with will work well.

As I’ve mentioned before, people don’t hum chord progressions — they hum melodies. It goes without saying that getting the melody right is a crucial part of the success of a song.

If your song melodies just aren’t happening, here are some suggestions for helping you create one after you’ve got the chord progression:

  1. Because the best melodies use repetition as a crucial element, start by first creating a short fragment of melody that sounds good with your progression, then create a second one that starts on a higher or lower note, but uses the same basic shape of the first idea.
  2. The first point notwithstanding, if you’ve created a nice short melodic phrase but don’t know what to do next, a simple exact repeat is a great idea. It doubles in length what you’ve just created, and many songs do this. (“Shake, Rattle & Roll”, for example).
  3. If ideas just aren’t happening, try reducing your chord progression to a bass line, and create a melody that works nicely with it. It removes a lot of clutter that may be confusing your musical mind.
  4. Remember that good melodies have a sense of direction, of purpose. They’re not just random collections of notes. You hear this important quality in the world’s best melodies down through the ages. Listen to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“, then “Yesterday“, then “With Or Without You.” Three song melodies that differ so much in compositional style, but with a strong sense of direction and momentum. In each melody there is that important quality of repetition while the melody moves away from the starting note, then a sense of purpose as it seeks that final note.

About the second point above: considering how a melody moves with respect to the bass line is an important technique in musical composition. Whether listeners realize it or not, they’re most aware of the melody and the bass. So play your bass line over and over, and then start creating a melody that works nicely with it. You’ll often find that the best melodies use a mixture of moving with the bass line, moving contrary to the bass line.


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