Do you like starting the songwriting process by coming up with a chord progression first? Every songwriter has done that — even writers that focus on lyrics as their strongest suit will occasionally resort to playing a chord progression, even if just to get in the composing mood.
But here’s a problem you’ll often notice when you’re vamping through a chord progression: it’s not always easy to know what to do to create a melody that works with it.
Here are 7 tips for creating melodies when you’re starting a song from a chord progression:
- Try different rhythmic approaches. Before even thinking of what melody would work, concentrate on a rhythmic approach… a style or groove that you think is going to eventually represent the mood of your song. It may seem strange to do this even before you have lyrics figured out, but try it. Songwriters can often tell what the song is “about” even before the lyrics take shape. So experiment with the feel — think about how you’re going to be playing those chords.
- Try different voicings. This will work no matter what chording instrument you’re using. Play through your chord progression until it feels comfortable and sits in a groove. Now, each time you play through it, change the highest notes that you’re playing. Those highest notes will trace a kind of “proto-melody” that can give you ideas. It can help to hum those highest notes, and change them each time you play through the chord sequence.
- Try to incorporate repetition into your melodic improvisations. Improvising melodies is a great way to allow one idea to evolve into another. We know that repetition plays a crucial role in the structural integrity of a melody, so try this: as you play through the progression, sing a short 4- or 5-note melodic fragment for each chord. As the chords change, you may find that you’ll need to adjust your melody, so that the repetition is approximate instead of exact. But it’s a great way to find something “hooky” that you can string together to make a longer melody.
- Improvise words as a way of creating melodic ideas. Try a kind of “stream of consciousness” babbling of words as you play, and don’t worry if you’re not making a lot of sense yet. You’ll find that as you go, the natural pulses of word syllables start to imply melodic shapes. Go with it. You’ll start to notice that a general topic is coming forward, and the words you’re using are giving you melodic ideas.
- Try improvising at different tempos and in time signatures. If you feel like you’ve tapped out every melodic possibility with the chords you’ve created, try a new tempo. It’s amazing what this does for your musical imagination. Speed up the tempo, and you’ll notice the entire feel of the song is changing as well. That has a huge impact on the kind of melodic ideas you imagine.
- Collaborate with another songwriter. You’ve got the chords, but you just don’t like anything you’ve come up with? Now might be the time to work with someone else, someone who might hear the progression in a different way, someone who hears things completely differently. It can be exciting to hear someone else’s approach, and it can stimulate your own imagination.
- Try switching mode. If your chord progression is in a major key (C F Dm G Am G C), see if melodic ideas appear when you switch into minor: Cm Fm Ddim G Ab G Cm
And then, don’t forget this one last bit of advice: don’t get paralyzed by a progression that’s not working for you. If it just doesn’t seem to be producing melodies for you, simply put it aside and start working from a new set of chords. You can do more damage to your imagination by stubbornly trying to coax a melody out of a progression that’s just not working for you.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter