5 Reasons Why Melody-First Is Better Than Chords-First Songwriting

It takes getting used to, but starting songs by working out the melody has some vital benefits.

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Microphone - Writing a melodyDon’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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:

  1. Sit quietly for a few minutes, and try to clear your mind of the clutter of your day.
  2. Sing a note (hum or sing “la”) in the middle of your vocal range. Hold the note for several seconds.
  3. Sing your chosen note, and then add a note higher or lower.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

______________Gary Ewer

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.“)

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  2. I’m not sure about this. If I come up with a good melody that’s fully formed first before doing anything else musically it’s often a lost cause. It has to be a bit of both chords and melody for me. I find I often start with chords which inspires a melody and then when I’ve found something good I fix the melody and experiment with changing the chords!

  3. This was a great post Gary. I find it difficult to write without the “crutch” of my guitar chords. I need the musical feel in order to get the melodic ball rolling so to speak. Here is a great example of chords first https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0OYQm0pNI8. What I try to do is mine for the melody first with playing chords and once I get a fragment that works, I will take that away from the guitar and play with it a bit in my head. I have read that Max Martin composes all of his melodies first and he is a great example of the power of that approach. I have not been able to find anything showing him in action with this approach but I wish I could be a fly on the wall of one of his sessions.

  4. It is a great idea to find melody’s purely with your ear I sit in my
    garden and listen to the birds singing it often gives me a start,
    to a great song, we are influenced by everything around us,
    listening to the radio for a while, often sends me on a new
    idea starting with a rhythm , Once you have a start try it to
    various tempos and different keys and you will hear something
    that appeals to you

    If you compose with guitar chords maybe try piano chords
    A Piano or guitar hook can often set you off on an original
    musical journey and that what every good song is a journey
    that satisfies the ear

  5. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – May 22, 2015 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  6. everything you point out makes sense but when I try this, I find it more difficult to create a Vocalized improvised melody than to pick up some chordal instrument and haphazardly see what comes out. And something will, especially on piano because I’m not technically good and don’t know what not to do. Thankfully there are occasions when I happen to wake up or just hear a melody in my mind in which case it’s just a race to get it down. Find it rather hard to improvise melodies out of the blue with only a whistle or vocal pitches.

    • Hi Charlie:

      You’ll find it difficult at first, because your main “crutch”, so to speak, has always been to play chords as a starting point. You’ll find that at first, singing melodies with no chords behind them will feel random and difficult. I’m not suggesting this activity as a way of making songwriting difficult, but rather to add an approach to your already-established songwriting procedure. The fact that you find it difficult is not an indicator that it won’t work for you. Like everything we do, it’s a learned activity.

      Be patient, and keep trying! You’ll find it gets easier with time, and the benefits will slowly happen.


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