keyboard player and songwriter

Making Sure Your Melody and Chords are Cooperating

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Creating a song melody that is effective means writing one that is:

  1. well supported by the chords underneath it;
  2. acts as a strong partner for the lyric;
  3. is comprised of short, sometimes repetitious melody “cells” that are easy for audiences to remember.

So much of how much we like a melody is cultural, based on what we’ve heard all our lives and what we’ve always liked about song melodies.

And one of the most important aspects of successful melodies has to do with how it works with the chords. When a chord progression has problems, it can sound like it’s the melody that actually has the problems.

Here are five important tips to remember as you write your song melodies:

  1. A good melody will usually work even if you take away its chords. This means that a song melody that you’ve come up with while improvising chords on your guitar will still sound good when you sing it with no accompaniment. In fact, singing the melody as an a cappella performance is a great way to examine the melody in a pure, uncluttered way.
  2. The strong beats of a melody should coincide with a note from the supporting chord. You can identify strong beats in music by first tapping your foot to the beat. You’ll start to recognize that the music is usually structured to be alternating strong and weak beats. Melodies can wander about, and include notes not found in the chord that is being played underneath it. But more often than not, the melody note on a strong beat will be a note from that chord.
  3. Improvising chords can reveal important melodic ideas. I like the melody-first way of writing, but if you find that you’re stuck, improvising on chords can offer ideas for melodies. Here’s something to try: play through your chord progressions, either on a keyboard or guitar, and then change voicing every time you go through the progression. By hearing the top notes of your voicing change, you become aware of melodic shapes and contours that can be the basis for your new melody.
  4. If your new major-key melody doesn’t thrill you, switch chords to the minor. You’ll often find that the same melody will work just as well with minor chords as with major, but with a completely new mood attached. One quick way to do that: Let’s say your melody is in C major, and your chords are C  F  G  C. Keep the same melody, but move the chord choice down a 3rd. See if Am  Dm  Em  Am works as an accompaniment. Sometimes you’ll have to fix a chord or two with this method, but it can offer a solution to song melodies that don’t excite you.
  5. Try transposing a melody to a new key, even within the same song section. It’s a great way to keep a melody, especially one that uses a lot of repetition, from getting old too quickly. Diana Ross’s “Chain Reaction” (Barry, Robin & Maurice Gibb) is a good example of this. You have to be careful with constant key changing, though — it can sound cliché very quickly if you use it too much. It’s one of those “try it once” songwriting techniques.

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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