Does Your Melody Work Without the Chords and Lyric?

Not all songs are about the melody. Since every good song is a partnership of melody, lyrics and chords (and then miscellaneous other bits that get woven in and around those elements), you can wind up with a song that makes a stronger impact through its hook, lyric or rhythmic groove, and leave melody as a less important component.

In general, the slower the song, the more important a strong melody becomes. Slower songs tend to move rhythm/hook into the background, and leave the melody/lyric partnership as the strong bit to which listeners become attracted.

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If a hummable, memorable melody is what you want to present to your audience, here’s a simple on-the-spot test you can do: try singing your melody as an accompanied song, with no instrumental/chording backing at all. Does it still work in this bare-bones version?

It’s hard to find occurrences of unaccompanied songs in the Billboard charts that made it as hits. The only one that springs to mind is Prelude’s 1973 version of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” In their version of the song, you get to hear vocal harmonies throughout. But you also get to hear the melody on its own, and it’s a very good way to diagnose a melody.

Once you’ve written your next song, try the following, with no instrumental accompaniment:

  1. Hum your melody (or sing it to a “neutral” syllable like “la,” “da” or “doo”. By leaving the lyrics aside for the moment, you get to hear the contours of the melodies without the influence of lyric. It gives you an easier way to hear how the verse connects to the pre-chorus or chorus, how the chorus sounds when it returns to the verse, and so on.
  2. Think about melodic climactic moments. For each section of your song, you should notice a moment that stands out, a part where the melody moves upward and represents an important moment. You should notice that of all climactic moments, the one in the chorus is likely the most powerful one.
  3. Think about implied chords. If you think back in time to when Baroque and classical composers were writing (c.1600 – c.1830), melodies usually defined what the chords were going to be. A good melody will imply the chords that might support it. As you hum your melody, do you get a sense of chords changing? Melodic contour will often make this obvious. Imagine humming through “Hey Jude”, and you’ll see right away what I mean. As you sing each phrase, you get a real sense of chords changing.
  4. Sing the melody with the lyric. Think about how the accents and pulses of the words match up with the shape of the melody. The way a melody and lyric work together should feel natural.
  5. Think about the melody as you start to put your instrumentation together. Some melodies might work well with a simple chording instrumental backing, as with Neil Young’s own version of “After the Gold Rush,” but you might also borrow shapes from the melody and insert them into your backing accompaniment. That helps to highlight important melodic motifs that adds a kind of musical glue to the structure. (Think about the guitar intro to John Denver’s “Fly Away“, and how it relates to the melody of the first verse for a good demonstration of this concept.  )

Gary Ewer

Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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  1. Mercedes Benz – By Janis Joplin – one of the most catchy, memorable folk songs I can recall– no accompaniment except for a bit of high hat, I think

    I recently wrote a song and performed it a couple of times a cappella. People’s ears really perk up and listen, when it’s only one voice. Like in national anthems sung at a sporting event. There is something great about this type of song performance, and I wish I encountered it more often.

    Another favourite of mine is “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” as it appeared on a hard-to-find self-titled album by Katmandu feat. the singer from Fastway.


  2. I was working on a building site many years ago, whilst playing clubs
    at the weekends There were some fellow workers with pretty good
    voices as well as a few bad ones

    It struck me then that if the songs melody stood up with no backing
    it must be a pretty good song

    Even so the descending chord sequence of Hotel California’ verses is
    something that I would miss a lot, however the Chorus of the same song
    is one that sounds great without the chords , but the jump from Minor to
    Major in the songs Chorus is something the song needs with and without

    I also think the no music rule for testing a song out is far better in songs
    that have just a few chords than those with a lot

    The pedal point in Dan Hills collaboration with Barry Mann entitled
    Sometimes When We Touch is a part of that song thats needed to add
    to the emotion in the opening measures

    But yes the point of this article is that in 90 % of songs singing the song
    without the backing is a great test of the songs quality both in words and

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