Many songwriters like starting the process by working out the chords first. That’s because chords give us a strong sense of mood, and if you’re trying to generate lyrics, creating a mood is a good start.
So you’ve got a chord progression to which you then add a rhythmic feel. With that partnership of chords and rhythm, you’re starting to get a sense, even if just a vague one, of what the song could be about. But what about melody? A good chord progression may give you no hints at all for what a good melody might be. So what do you do?
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There are several ways to generate melodic ideas from a chord progression. Here are 3 that are easy to try:
1. Create a melodic fragment based on a pentatonic scale.
A pentatonic scale is any 5-note scale, but in common usage we’re talking about one that uses the following scale degrees: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (C, D, E, G, A, assuming your song is in C major.)
Pentatonic melodies are easy to harmonize, because the trickiest notes to fit into chords are the 4th and 7th scale degrees, which don’t exist in this kind of pentatonic scale. So create a short melodic fragment (from 4 to 8 notes long) by improvising on the notes C, D, E, G and/or A.
Listen to the following example. You’ll hear a standard I-ii-V-vi progression, and then on the repeat a short 4-note melody that uses the notes E, G and A. It works when you repeat it over each chord of the progression.
2. Keep changing the chord voicing
Chord voicing refers to the order of the notes in a chord. As it applies to this exercise, we’re mostly interested in the upper notes of the chords. Each time you play the progression, whether on your guitar, piano, or some other chording instrument, change the voicings so that different notes are the topmost ones.
You’ll find that your ears will gravitate to those upper notes, creating a kind of melody that might stimulate your imagination and create short melodic fragments for you to improvise with.
3. Change the backing rhythms
You may not notice that each time you create a chord progression for a new song, you have your favourite go-to backing rhythm, and in addition to making all your songs sound similar, it stunts your imagination for improvising a new melody.
So play through your progression several times, changing the rhythms you use in your strumming or keyboard playing. You might also experiment with tempo as well. Once you find a new rhythm that you like, try either ideas above (1 or 2) to create a new melodic fragment.
Melody and Lyrics
As you work out melodies, don’t forget lyrics. It can be a good part of your songwriting process to throw words in, even if you’re not sure why you’re doing it. Often the words you toss in will sound like garbage, but once in a while you’ll find that you’ve found a word or phrase that fits with the rhythm and gives you even more ideas.
More importantly, those improvised lines of lyrics will help generate melodic ideas, because words have a natural contour that implies melodic shape.
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