Creating Melodies When You Use the Chords-First Method

One of the biggest drawbacks to starting your songs by working out a chord progression is that melodies can get a bit neglected. Historically, composers in the Classical realm rarely if ever started compositions with just chords. They’d practically always start with something hummable (a melody), or something otherwise memorable (the lyrics, perhaps).

And since it’s difficult — perhaps even impossible — to hum chord progressions, they’d only ever think of chords as being supportive of the melody. In other words, most composers would spend their time thinking of great melodies, and only think of chords as being the foundation underneath which those melodies would live.

chordsfirst_smThe chords-first method of songwriting can work, but you need to keep your eye on what listeners want to focus on: a good melody and good lyrics. “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression” shows you how to get the chords-first method working for you.

There is a very good reason for starting with chords, however, which is that a chord progression can strongly define and effuse a mood. On their own, a chord progression can sound happy and resilient, or perhaps brooding and pensive. When you pair a chord progression with other elements such as tempo, rhythm, instrumentation and other musical bits, a chord progression can take centre stage.

The problem with all of this is that a good chord progression, with a tight instrumentation, rhythm, etc., has a way of making you forget that you don’t have a good melody yet. And since melodies are what people tend to remember, a chords-first method means you have to actively move your concentration to melody once your chords are created.

Here’s a way you can take a chord progression and use it to help create good melodies:

  1. Play through your progression, and experiment with different time signatures, tempos and backing rhythms. You’ll likely have a first instinct for what the chords should sound like, but try to branch out and improvise different rhythms and meters. Your most likely successes will come from either 4/4 or 3/4 time, but try those in different tempos and with different rhythmic treatments.
  2. Hum melodic ideas as you play the chords. Try various approaches: 1) Sing mainly lower notes; 2) Sing mainly higher notes; 3) Move from low to high, and vice versa. In everything you try, be sure to concentrate on the repetition of melodic fragments to create your melodies. For example, think of the melody for Pharrell William’s “Happy”, and how many times you hear something repeat either exactly or approximately. Repetition is a crucial part of making memorable melodies.
  3. Change the voicings of the chords as you play them. If you’re a keyboardist, change the topmost note of each chord, each time you play through the progression. Those top notes will stimulate your imagination to create new melodic ideas.
  4. Create melodies that include a good mix of stepwise motion and melodic leaps. Sometimes a melody can consist mainly of stepwise motion (“Groovy Kind of Love” – Carole Bayer Sager, Toni Wine), and sometimes mainly leaps (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – Martin/Blane). But most good song melodies will consist of a mixture of both. Create melodies that include the occasional upward leap, as this tends to inject a bit of musical energy into a line, and make the melody easier for an audience to remember.
  5. Don’t forget: you can always change chords to accommodate a great melody. If you’ve got your chord progression done, and you’re working on a melody, remember that a progression can be changed if the melody calls for it.

And never forget that once you’ve got a melody working, chords just need to work — they don’t need to grab attention the way a melody or lyrics can and should grab attention. So even if you like the chords-first method of songwriting, your song should still be mainly about the lyrics and the melody, and whatever production makes those come alive.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

3rd_ed_cover_smChapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” is where you’ll discover the secrets of writing a melody that partners well with a lyric. Get the full 10-eBook Bundle, and a FREE COPY of “Creative Chord Progressions.”

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  1. Hi Matt

    It really depends on the subject matter of the lyrics Take the verse of
    RUBY DON’T TAKE YOUR LOVE TO TOWN sung by Kenny Rogers

    The songs first Phrase includes Seven plus Three repeated notes ,
    the second Phrase has Four repeated notes The Third Phrase
    includes Seven plus Two repeated notes then the first Hook has None
    just moving melody,

    The chords used are mainly all the common Three of every KEY namely
    One Four or Five so its all about Genre and Subject Matter with any hit
    There are always exceptions and -The Walrus – is one of them ,
    I take your point about Lennons composition but John was deliberately
    trying and succeeding , to show the influence of mild drugs, in song writing
    at that time,

  2. Hi Gary,
    Firstly thank you for all of the great work you have done on this blog as it has helped tremendously with my songwriting.

    I would like to point out that it is possible to get away with having a melody with very little shape (for at least one section of a song) if you have interesting chord changes underneath the melody. For example, Lennon was a master at this. Julia is a great example because the entirety of the first verse (with the exception of the refrain where he sings “julia”) is just one note that John sings with the chords changing as he sings as he sings the one note over and over. He does the same exact thing in Strawberry fields forever with the first line of the verses such as when he sings “living is easy with eyes closed”. Then we have a really interesting case with Lucy in the sky where the first half of the verses have a melody that lingers mainly on one note and we just have one chord, so the only thing that’s moving is the bassline. We only have a chord change on the last word of each line where the melody rests on the tonic (with “skies” and “eyes”) and it is a surprising one because he uses a flat-VI chord instead of continuing on with the I chord which is what a conventional mind would have done to harmonize the tonic note in the melody. In the second half of the verses where the modulation occurs John continues singing a somewhat monotonous melody but here he does have the chords change to create contrast from the first half of the verse. Another great example would be I am the walrus where he sings “I am here as you are here as….” because here he is moving back and forth between 2 notes (which in my opinion are less than a semitone apart) and we have an interesting chord progression happening underneath this line (I – flat-III – IV). And a last example would be Help where again he uses a somewhat monotonous melody and has interesting chord movement happening underneath such as when he sings “help in any way” and harmonizes this with a IV – flat-VII – I progression.
    So I think here John proves it’s possible to get away with a flat melody (as in lacking contour) if you use some really interesting chords such as out of key chords to harmonize your flat melody.
    That’s all I wanted to say so once again thanks for the great work and keep it up.
    If anybody reading this knows of any other artists who used this technique please feel free to share as it is an interesting approach to writing music and i’m curious about who else (if anyone else) used this technique as extensively as Lennon did.

  3. Pingback: Creating Melodies When You Use the Chords-First Method - The Hit Songwriting Formula | The Hit Songwriting Formula

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