I have a theory as to why so many songwriters like to start with chords: it’s because chords give you:
- a mood;
- a musical landscape;
- the start of a musical form.
In very short order, you can easily come up with 8 bars of music when you’ve got 3 chords, even if you don’t have a melody or lyrics yet. Chords give you the semblance of something complete, and show you the possibilities.
Ever come up with a great melody, but get stuck at the “how to add chords to it” stage? “How To Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step-by-step and with sound samples, how it’s done. It describes chord function, and how to discover chord substitutions that might work. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.
The biggest danger of a chords-first process is the neglected melody. You get something working in the chords, and even if the melody you come up with is a bit lame, you’ve still got that lovely progression, and it still sounds OK.
But here’s a problem: No one walks about humming chords to themselves. They sing melodies. Good melodies. No one sings bad melodies.
And so you’ve got a great progression that works, with a lame melody and questionable lyrics. And because those chords are still doing their job, you may not even notice that the song isn’t really working.
Since everyone hums melodies and not chords, it makes sense to put the focus on the melody as a starting point. But in doing so, many songwriters fear that they’ve lost their ability to do what chords-first does for them: generate a mood, create a musical landscape, and/or design a musical form.
But it really isn’t true. You can do all those things by simply thinking about melody. And once you get a melody working, you add chords that support it, and you generate another melody or two, and now you’ve got the start of a musical form: a song.
Developing a Melody-First Process
If you want to experiment with a melody-first process, try this:
- Strum a chord. Choose a chord for which you’d find it easy to eventually create a progression… perhaps a C major chord, or A minor if you think you’d like a minor tune.
- Choose a starting note. You’ll need a note that works well with your chord from step 1 above.
- Without instrumental backing, simply improvise (hum) a melody. This is the step that might surprise you. You can generate melodies by improvising ideas from your musical brain. Not every idea will sound great, so when you get muddled, strum your chord again, and give it another go. Tap your foot as you do this, to be aware of where the strong beats fall.
- See how much of a melody you can create in this way. Be sure to record your efforts on your smartphone or digital recorder. Some good ideas can be forgotten.
- Add chords to your melodic ideas. You’ll notice that your brain simply won’t create random note combinations. They actually do make musical sense, and will fit with a sensible chord progression. You’ll notice where the chords feel like changing, and you’ll notice that you’ve been repeating musical ideas — an important characteristic of great songwriting. In general, chords will change on the strong beats: every 2, 4 or 8 beats of melody.
At this point, you’ve likely got enough material to continue the process in whichever way feels right for you. The purpose of this melody-first process is to reassure you: you can create melodies as a starting point.
The benefit of a melody-first process is that you’re creating the very thing that people will ultimately hum. You put the focus on the melodic lines, not on the chords that form the backing landscape.
That gives give the audience something powerful to remember as well as something to sing. It ensures that your melodies have a shape that works well on its own.
Chords-first can work, as long as you’re careful to not forget the power of a good melody. But every once in a while, give melody-first a try. I think you’ll love the results.
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