It takes getting used to, but starting songs by working out the melody has some vital benefits.
Purchase Gary Ewer’s “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-eBook Bundle, and become the songwriter you’ve always thought you could be!
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing particularly wrong with strumming through some chord progressions as a first step to writing your next song. Many do it, and it can help stimulate your musical imagination.
But when you strum through chord progressions, what are you actually doing? What’s the reason for listening to chords? Most of the time, it’s to try to create a melody — or at least a fragment of a tune.
It may be time to try a different approach: improvising melodies as a first step in the songwriting process, then create chords that fit what you’ve come up with.
There are at least 5 reasons why starting with a melody is better than starting with chords:
- It allows you to focus on the melody, uncluttered by other musical elements. Listening to a melody without having to deal with lyrics or chords is a great way to examine its shape and overall effect. The best melodies will usually work well as an unaccompanied tune.
- You feel freer to experiment with chords once you’ve got a melody working. By starting the songwriting process with the creation of a melody, you’ve got the opportunity to try many alternative progressions. Starting with chords tends to lock you in to whatever you came up with, and experimenting feels difficult.
- You focus in on the thing that people remember the most: the tune. A catchy chord progression is great, but a catchy melody will take a song much further.
- You’re more likely to create interesting melodic shapes in melody-first songwriting. You can almost always tell the songs that started with chords: the melodies tend to sit around one or two notes as the chords change underneath. By focusing first on melody, you are more likely to imagine more interesting melodic shapes, including leaps, a climactic high point, and a better use of vocal range.
- You’re more likely to experiment with rhythm, tempo and time signatures. Chords-first songwriting tends to make you feel locked in to a basic beat, tempo and rhythmic treatment. Because you’re simply improvising a melody, you’re more likely to feel free to imagine different treatments — different ways of arranging that melody.
If you’re willing to try starting your next song by improvising melodic ideas first before moving to your guitar or keyboard, it may feel a bit daunting. There are lots of ways to improvise melodic ideas, but if you’re feeling stuck, here’s one set of steps that might help:
- Sit quietly for a few minutes, and try to clear your mind of the clutter of your day.
- Sing a note (hum or sing “la”) in the middle of your vocal range. Hold the note for several seconds.
- Sing your chosen note, and then add a note higher or lower.
- Sing the two notes over and over. Try varying the way you sing them. Try them in quick succession, or slowly, or hold the first one for a few seconds, then the second note shorter… you get the idea.
- Sing your two notes, and add a 3rd note, and improvise melodic ideas that use all 3 notes. Try to settle on a rhythmic, hooky kind of treatment, something that sounds good when repeated over and over.
- Improvise other melodic ideas, and then alternate them with your short, 3-note hook.
Do as much of this as you can simply by ear. You will likely want to record yourself so that you can go back and listen more carefully to the ideas you’ve been creating.
Eventually, something will jump out at you. And you will probably surprise yourself when you discover that not only have you been creating melodies, but you’ve also been imagining chords to accompany them.
The most powerful benefit of working in this way is that you start the creative process by composing that thing that people hear and remember the most: a melodic shape. And as long as that melody is working, it will only get better as you add your chords and lyrics.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter. “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 6-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. (And you’ll receive a FREE copy of “From Amateur to Ace: Writing Songs Like a Pro.“)