The composer Mozart almost always composed by finding a catchy melody as a first step, and then finding a bass line that supported it. Filling in all the missing instruments was, for him, something closer to a final step in composition.
We can infer two things from this kind of compositional process:
- He considered melody to be the most important aspect of any piece of music.
- The bass line implied the harmony/chord progression; once you’ve got a bass line that works with a melody note, you’ve got (often) two notes of a full chord.
It also affirms something I’ve believed for a long time: a melody-first songwriting process is actually a melody-and-chords process, in the sense that it’s hard — or perhaps impossible — for any good musician to hear melody notes without also hearing the chords that could go with them.
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.
When you write songs, you might be starting with a bit of lyric, or a poem. Or perhaps you’ve got a rhythmic groove in mind. But when it comes to actually creating the notes, you’re either going to:
- start by working out a melody, and find the chords that go with it, or…
- start by working out a chord progression, and then find a melody that works.
In today’s hit songwriting, using a topliner — a singer who can create melodies above a given progression and production — means you’re following the second process listed above. You’re trying to find a melody that works with an already-existing underlay of chords and instrumentation.
Creating a Melody-and-Bass-Line Partnership
But if you’re willing to have a go at it, you might try Mozart’s method of working out a melody and bass line as a partnership of musical features. It seemed to work out OK for him. 😉
Here’s a step-by-step that will guide you through the melody-and-bass process:
- Play a chord on guitar or keyboard, and choose a starting note for your melody. At this point, a random choice of note is completely fine.
- Improvise a short melody of a few notes without using your instrument.
- Using the bass notes of your chording instrument (guitar or keyboard), improvise a bass line that might work with that melody. Think like a bass player, which means think of supporting that melody line, not trying to create a counter melody. Don’t worry about what chords your bass line is implying. Just get something working together.
- As you create your melody, let the bass line be more active as the melody notes get longer; let the bass line sit on one note (or play rhythmically on one note) as the melody line becomes more active.
- As you work, your bass line should be implying the chords. So even though you’re only playing a bass note, your imagination should be allowing you to “hear” the harmonies that are implied by that bass note.
In a sense, by creating a bass line, you’re actually creating a chord progression. As in Mozart’s process, you can fill in actual chords (instrumentation) later.
The Strength of a Melody and Bass Partnership
So why did Mozart work this way? Why didn’t he actually write out the chord progressions (in the form of instrumentation) as he worked at this preliminary stage? The answer was that it just wasn’t necessary yet. What he really needed to establish was a melody and chords. The bass line implied the chords, and it was a lot faster for him to write a bass line than it was for him to write out an entire instrumentation.
But I also thing there’s another benefit to working out a melody and bass line as a songwriting process: listeners will hear melody first, and then bass line as a second important feature, before they’re aware of whatever else is going on instrumentally. That means that if you can get a melody and bass working well together, you’ve got the makings of a good song with a strong structural design.
Whether you’re a chords-first or melody-first songwriter, try giving the melody-and-bass process a try.
“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.