Starting the songwriting process by working out chords makes a certain amount of sense, mainly for the reason that chords can provide a strong sense of mood. The theory is that if you can get some good chords working, and then pair them up with a rhythmic groove, you’ve got the makings of the feel of a good song. Now you just need a melody and lyrics.
I think the chords-first method can work, but it comes with certain musical dangers, the main one being that the melody can get neglected. The great classical masters of composition practically always did a melody-first method for writing music. By doing so, they ensured that melody was front and centre, with no chance of being neglected.
Once you’ve got a melody, how do you know which chords will work with it? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. Shows the secrets of harmonic rhythm, identifying the key of your melody, chord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
There are two problems that many songwriters have with the melody-first method:
- Without chords to guide me, how do I come up with a good melody? Or…
- Once I’ve got a melody, what do I do for chords?
The first problem is the one that provides the most anxiety, but it shouldn’t. If you’ve always thought that coming up with a melody with no chords in mind sounds daunting, you might be surprised that it’s actually a lot easier than you think.
If you, right now, start to hum an improvised melody, you’ll likely find you won’t simply sing random notes. You’ll probably notice the following:
- You’re creating melodic shapes that fit into a major or minor scale structure, even if you’re not trying.
- Your melodic ideas are singable.
- You’re creating rhythmic ideas that get repeated.
- You might even throw in a word or two as you get a feeling for what you’re singing about.
In other words, it’s highly unlikely that you’re simply going to improvise random notes that have no structure whatsoever. Everything you hum will have the potential for being accompanied by a chord progression.
In that sense, there’s really no such thing as a melody-first method, because a newly-improvised melody will imply the chords that could support it. So it really is a melody-and-chords method.
Just because you have an ability to sing melodies that make musical sense doesn’t mean you’ve written a great melody. There are lots of ways that singable melodies can be bad, but at least you’ve got the ability to get inside the ballpark, as they say.
The Advantage of Melody-First Songwriting
So if melody and chords happen more or less together, is there an advantage to concentrating on writing the melody first? Yes, and it’s a pretty big advantage: By focusing on the melody, you feel freer to change the chords underneath it, and you can end up with a more interesting chord progression.
It’s amazing how much you can influence the impact of a melody by adjusting the chord progression underneath it. If you’re not sure how to come up with good chord substitutions, give this article a read: “Chord Substitutions: Finding a Great Chord.
Don’t Forget the Structure of Good Melodies
Don’t be too discouraged if your first attempts to write a melody result in something that sounds structureless or otherwise disorganized. It may take several attempts to come up with something you like. As you try to get the melody-first method working for you, remember these important tips regarding good melodies:
- Good melodies use a good amount of repetition. If you come up with a good, short melodic idea, try seeing what it sounds like if you simply repeat it. You’d be surprised how many song melodies make use of this one important characteristic.
- Good melodies are mainly stepwise with occasional leaps. If you’re stuck for what to do next once you’ve sung your first note, simply move up or down by scale degrees. Scales often form important parts of good melodies. A great example of a melody composed by mainly scalewise passages is “A Groovy Kind of Love” (Carole Bayer Sager, Toni Wine).
- Don’t forget repeated notes. When all else fails, try singing the same note a few times, working out an interesting rhythm. A good example of this is Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone“, where the verse melody makes great use of note repetition.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle comes with a free copy of “Creative Chord Progressions”. Learn how to take your chords beyond simple I-IV-V progressions. With pages of examples ready for you to use in your own songs.