When I write music, I like starting with melody first. But melody-first writing means also thinking about chords. That’s because the musical part of our brain is always assembling melody notes and coming up with chords.
If you want to see how this works, click to listen to this melody:
A simple enough melody. Play it a few times until you can hum it easily. Have you noticed that there’s a sense of harmony that goes along with that melody? You can practically “hear” the chords that would accompany it, even though you may not be able to identify them right away.
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Here’s a possible set of easy chords that would accompany that melody: C F G C:
Those chords seemed obvious to me even as I created the melody, and I know that many of you were able to imagine some sort of similar chord progression as well. It may not have been exactly the same, but as musicians, it’s something we usually can do, assuming the melody isn’t too complicated.
So how are we able to do this at all? How do we listen to melodies and come up with the chords?
It’s actually quite simple. We notice right away that music gets assembled into beats. More specifically, we become aware of strong beats and weak beats. Most melodies are like that: a long succession of alternating strong beats and weak beats. Drummers will usually hit the snare on the weak beat:
We focus on the notes that happen on the strong beats. We notice then that those strong beat notes often outline a chord.
The Fear of Melody-First Songwriting
So now let’s look at this from a different angle: the fear that songwriters have of melody-first songwriting. It’s much more common for a typical songwriter to work out a chord progression, and then see what melody and lyrics they might add over it. It’s what topliners usually do.
So why do songwriters find melody-first writing hard? Well, it’s probably not that they find it hard. It’s probably more a case of finding it scary.
Chords have a way of laying down a foundation, and making whatever else we add to them feel secure. We get this sense that “at least we have the chords working”, and then we can keep adding and changing things until we have a song finished.
The problem with chords-first writing can be that the melody gets neglected. Starting the process by working out a melody means that your song’s tune gets the spotlight. And that’s part that people are going to remember, and are going to be able to hum.
Starting With the Melody
So how do you start songwriting by working out the melody? Let’s keep this simple: here’s a quick guide that assumes you’re going to write a song in the key of C major, which means that the chords you’re eventually going to use are: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and/or Bdim:
- Grab your guitar, or whatever instrument you like to chord on.
- Strum a C chord. Sing any note that you feel works with that chord. (This means you’re likely singing a C, an E or a G.)
- Without strumming the guitar, sing a sequence of 4 or 5 notes that make some sort of musical sense to you. Try a simple scale, or perhaps a simple little shape, something like this:
- Now strum your C chord, and start humming that melody:
- That’s not a terribly interesting chord progression, so start experimenting. You know you’re in C major, so try an F chord and see what happens: . Now we’ve got something that sounds a bit more interesting. But I wonder if we can do better…
- Try ending the melody with an Am chord – it gives it a nice melancholy sound:
You get the idea… by experimenting, you’re putting your musical mind to work, choosing chords that make your melody sound even better.
The thing I like about starting by creating that bit of melody first is that it puts melody front and centre. It makes the tune the most important part of your song, and that means it’s likely to be a more memorable feature of your song.
And you’re using an ability you may not have known that you have: the ability to imagine chords when you hear a melody. It may take some practice, but working out your chord progression by working out a melody first will definitely raise your songwriting game. And you’ll love the results!
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