Some songwriters have a flair for coming up with just the right tune. Most of the time, the best melodies are good because they partner so well with the lyric, and of course with the chord progression.
But even with those elements in place, it can still be hard to write a great tune. So if you’re coming up dry, I’ve made a short list of three ideas that might help jump-start your melody-writing ideas, and I hope you find them useful.
“Hooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.
Keep in mind that these are ideas simply for getting the process started. They’ll help you generate a short melodic idea, and then hopefully you can take it from there.
1. Try a chords-first songwriting method
Historically, the great composers came up with melodies as a starting point. But no melody is great if it isn’t supported by a strong, supportive chord progression underneath it.
The problem with the chords-first method is that melodies can get ignored as the focus is placed on harmony. But there is a way to get chords to work for you: Play your chord progression over and over, changing the voicing each time.
By changing the voicing, you place different notes as the highest-sounding notes. As you move from chord to chord, those highest notes form a kind of melody. Not a great one at this stage, mind you, but enough to stimulate your imagination and give you some initial ideas of where a melody might start. From there, you can take those fledgling ideas and create something more complete and attractive.
2. Manipulate Pre-existing Melodies
This can be a fun way to come up with something new. Take a melody that you’ve known and loved for a long time. It can be your own, or it can also be someone else’s — perhaps the melody from your favourite song.
Take that melody and play it backwards. An entire melody may not work this way, but bits of it might. Remember, it’s not important to be able to find an entire melody this way. What you’re trying to do is to find initial ideas that can stimulate your imagination to write the rest of it.
You could also take the intervals of a melody and reverse those. For example, if you take the first few notes of the chorus to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, ignoring repeated notes, you get a descending figure that ends with an upward leap: F C A E. Reversing that gives you F Bb D G — an ascending figure that ends with a downward leap. Now you’ve got a short melodic cell that you can experiment with.
3. Use the Bass Line
Let’s say you’ve been playing around with this simple chord progression: C C/E F G7 (Click the play button below to listen)
Create a melody that moves in parallel 3rds above the bass line. That bass line is: C-E-F-G. Starting a 3rd above the C would give you a melody that starts on E: E-G-A-B. Listen:
You can use that bass line in other ways. You could create melodies that move in the opposite direction to the bass line, and you don’t need to keep the very same intervals. Simply choosing a method where you reverse the direction of the bass line can be enough to allow some melodic ideas to flow.
The Best Melodies
I’ve always believed that the best melodies come from a strong partnership with the lyric. So one of the best things you can do is to read your lyric out loud, and make note of where your voice tends to move up and move down.
That natural inflection that we place in words is an important part of how we communicate, but it’s also an important indicator of which direction a melody that you write might move.
Each eBook in “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundles shows you the fundamental principles that make great songs great.