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It could be that the fixation many newbie songwriters have with chord progressions is the fact that they’re not clear on why good ones work so well. Consequently, it doesn’t overly surprise me that the top ten posts on this blog are almost always ones that deal with chords.
Also, because chord progressions, once they are stripped of other elements such as rhythmic treatment, are not generally protected by copyright, you’re likely to find songwriters “looking for” chords online. It would be more than a bit odd to visit a forum for songwriters where people are asking for some good melodies to try out in their next song.
The chords-first versus melody-first discussion is not a chicken-or-egg argument. We know historically that it was melody first, at least in Western cultures. You can certainly make the argument that some indigenous cultures were more likely to do a rhythm-first (or perhaps more accurately, beat-first) approach.
It’s quite possible to plot a line that moves forward in time from Gregorian Chant (all melody, no chords), through early polyphony (rudimentary harmony), then through Renaissance (chord “successions” rather than chord progressions), on to the Baroque era (chord progressions as we understand them), and on and on, no matter what the genre.
Through it all, it’s always been about melody. The first steps toward musical notation, in practically any culture you can name, were attempts to document melodies. Those initial examples of notation from Western Europe (early chant notation, specifically, in and around the 9th century), used neumes, a system of lines, dots and assorted squiggles, all meant to prod the singer to remember the melodies they already knew from church.
Through the centuries, melody remained the most important element of music. Even during the Renaissance, when melody was something that was passed around and overlapped with other melodies to produce a rich sound that seemed very chord-based, it was still about melody, and listeners of the day heard music for 4 or 5 singers or instruments as being 4 or 5 intertwining melody lines.
It wasn’t until the end of the Renaissance that the top-most voice became the melody that held the most “important” musical information, with the other voices becoming less melodically important. In other words, something more akin to what we’re used to hearing today.
Why am I giving this little history lesson? I still believe that melody is the most important aspect of any good song, and it’s always been that way. That’s not to diminish the importance of anything else we do when we write music. But melody is what we remember, and what we ultimately value.
Much of what good songwriters do when it comes to writing melodies is instinctive. The good ones have a flair for it. Robin Gibb (1949-2012) of the Bee Gees said it well:
“There’s only 8 notes that you can work with [well, you know what he means]; the difference is in getting them in the right order. Not everybody does, otherwise everyone would be having a successful composing career. The difference is if you’ve got a knack of knowing something… you just know when you hear something that it works… When you write a pop song, you write with melody first.”
Why should melody rise to the top? Well, it’s either going to be lyrics or melody, that is for certain. Since chords, beat, tempo, instrumentation, and any other musical element you can name will show up in thousands of other songs, you’re left with melody and lyrics as being the two components that will be distinctively yours. And it’s far more likely you’ll remember a good lyric if it’s attached to a compelling melody.
So if your songwriting has been, up to this point, about setting up a groove, searching for the “killer chord progression”, at the expense of crafting a melody that captures the imagination of the listener, it’s time to stop what you’re doing and rethinking what you do when you write music.
And if you still want to start with chords (and there’s nothing wrong with that), it will always work out better for you if you constantly ask yourself, “But what would I sing with these chords.” It’s still always about the melody.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook Bundle looks at songwriting from every angle, and has been used by thousands of songwriters. How to use chords, write melodies, and craft winning lyrics.