Melodies and Chords, and How They Work Together

When we talk about a melody-first songwriting process, we assume that we’re talking about writing a song where thinking up the melody, or at least a bit of a melody, is the first step. Then once we’ve got a good chunk of that working and sounding good, we then try to figure out what kind of chords are going to support it.

In fact, that’s not exactly the case. Any good musician (songwriter or otherwise) would find it next to impossible — and I might even say undesirable — to work on a melody without having any kind of notion what the supporting chords are. So in fact, a melody-first process means a melody and chords process.

Hooks and RiffsThe chorus hook is just one type of hook, and you’ll make the greatest impact if your song actually makes layers from several kinds of hook. If you’re not sure what this is all about, you need to read “Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base.” Get it separately, or as part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.

That’s just the way we hear music. Humans are pattern seekers. When we hear melodies, we automatically group the notes together in our minds, forming possible chords as we go.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Click the play button below, and listen to the melody. You’ll notice that even though no chords have been included, you get a strong sense of implied harmony: you can easily imagine chords that might work with it:


That’s certainly not to say that you don’t have choices in what chords you ultimately choose to harmonize your melody. There are many possible choices.

How are we able to imagine chords when they aren’t there? There are many ways that chords work that we can actually imagine without those chords being present yet:

  1. We tend to hear chords as wanting to change on strong beats, not usually on weak beats.
  2. We usually like to imagine chords changing in a regular sort of way (i.e., every 2 beats or 4 beats or 8 beats, etc.)
  3. We typically consider the one or two melody notes that happen on the strong beats as defining what we want to hear for a chord at that moment.
  4. We often immediately imagine the most uncomplicated or predictable chords as a first step.

With regard to that 4th reason above, listen again to the sample melody, and you’ll notice that you probably imagined a simple I-IV-V kind of harmonization, something like this:


That’s a simple solution, and I would bet that you were imagining those chords, or something very close, when you heard the melody on its own. The chords were I-IV-V-I.

But once you know what the chords could be, you start to look around for some other solutions that might make that melody more distinctive while still supporting the melody.

For example, here’s a solution that includes tonic pedal notes — keeping the tonic note in the bass:


Here’s a version that uses some interesting chord substitutions: starting with a vi7 chord instead of I, and a ii-chord instead of IV, a iii7 chord in place of the V, and then ending on a IV7 instead of I:

The Benefits of the Melody/Chords Method

A chords first songwriting process usually means coming up with chords and backing rhythms as a first step, and then once that’s working to some degree, coming up with a melody and lyrics. There is an inherent weakness in the chords-first process, which is that melodies can be ignored and then added in, almost as a final step. This weakness can be overcome, however, and it’s the subject of my eBook “Writing a Song From a  Chord Progression.”

The main benefit of the melody-chords process is that it requires you to have a melody in fairly good working order before you start experimenting with possible chords that support it.

And the reason that’s beneficial is that it places the spotlight on the part of your song that people are more likely to be able to hum and remember. Getting the melody in good shape early in the process increases the odds that you’ll wind up with a tune that’s got an interesting shape, that gets built on enticing patterns, and that listeners will want to keep returning to.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

How to Harmonize a Melody, 2nd ed.Do you know how to add chords to that melody you just thought up? “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to do exactly that. It shows the secrets of harmonic rhythmidentifying the key of your melodychord function, and more. It’s part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle.

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