Songer - Songwriter

Considering Chords When Using a Melody-First Songwriting Process

If you like starting the songwriting process by working out the melody, you’re likely also simultaneously considering the chords that might accompany it. That’s because for melodies that are in a key, it’s practically impossible to hear those melody notes without our brains imagining chord possibilities.


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That’s not always the way it was, though. Go back 1500 years or so, to the time of “Gregorian Chant” (A.D. 500, give or take), and melody and text was all there was. It was long before the time of conventional harmony, at least the way we know it today.

Give this a listen to hear what I mean. No instruments, no vocal harmonies, and no clear obvious rhythmic patterns. It’s beautiful.

You’ll also notice that the melodies don’t seem to sit strongly in a key. Also, this time in history, musical notation didn’t tell you what specific notes to sing. Notation consisted of lines and squiggles that imitated the melodic shape. It served as a kind of “reminder” of the melody that they already knew from attending church every Sunday.

These singers start on an E, then move immediately to A, and then you’ll notice that all the notes come from A major. But back then, A major didn’t exist. Everything was modal. This is, in fact, an example of what was called the Ionian Mode, which is identical to what we’d call a major key these days.

Melodies and Chords

Do you notice how tricky it would be to come up with chords that might harmonize that melody? That’s because though the melody is gentle and beautiful, the notes aren’t organized to fit any sort of modern day chord progression.

That’s a lot different from a more recent melody. Listen to this folk song, “The False Knight Upon the Road,” which is also unaccompanied. Notice the differences between the chant and this folk song:

  1. “False Knight” uses melody notes that are organized to more easily outline chords, even though none are played. It’s harder (but not impossible) to come up with chords to accompany the chant.
  2. “False Knight” uses melodic rhythms arranged in strong beat/weak beat patterns. You can tap your toe!
  3. “False Knight” makes use of repetition of various melodic ideas, sometimes exact (“Hi deedle deedle dum…”), and sometimes approximate (“Oh what have you in your bag, oh what have you in your pack…”). Repetitions are much harder to find within a stanza of the chant.

“False Knight” is a melody that probably comes from the 18th or 19th century, even though the words are much older. Even though the tune is old, its notes are organized in much the way that we would write a song melody today: it’s in a key, and it uses a strong beat/weak beat pattern that allows an audience to feel a tempo.

Melody and Chords as a Songwriting Process

We don’t tend to write songs that use absolutely no accompaniment, at least not in the pop genres. But whether you choose to use instruments or not, considering chords as you write melodies is a vital part of melodic structure.

In that sense, the melody-first songwriting process is actually a melody-and-chords process.

So if you’re keen to write songs that place melodies first and foremost above chords or lyrics, remember: the melody notes that happen on strong beats are going to be the strongest determiner of what the chords might be.

That certainly doesn’t mean that you’re locked into one chord choice. Let’s say your first bar of melody consists of the notes C-D-E-F, sung at 120 bpm. Here are those four melody notes played three times, each with different chord choices: C-Am|C-A/C#|Dm7-G13|C

A melody-first songwriting process simply means that you work on your melody, changing chords (and lyrics, if lyrical ideas present themselves) to suit the melodic ideas you come up with.

I’m a big fan of the melody-first songwriting process, for the main reason that you’re concentrating on the part of the song that people can hum. Melodies have a better chance of bringing listeners back to a song than practically any other aspect, with the possible exception of the rhythmic groove-hook.


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Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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