songwriter improvising melodies and chords

Improving Your Ability to Imagine Melodies

If the songs you write come about as a result of improvising — either by yourself or with other songwriters/players — you probably find that the various components of a song come together in layers. A bit of this, a bit of that, and it all eventually glues together.

If you’re writing songs by yourself, you may find that it’s the chords that happen first, to which you add a bit of a rhythmic groove, and then melody happens.

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Most of the great composers wrote their music by imagining melodies as a first step, and then working out the chords that might accompany them. In fact, imagining melodies and coming up with chords happened almost simultaneously for the Beethovens and Mozarts of the classical music world.

That’s because their minds were already organizing melodies that have a strong sense of harmonic direction; no one was composing melodies made up of notes that were just moving around randomly. So the melodies, if they were good ones, implied the chords that might go with them.

The Melody-First Process

Coming up with a melody first, with nothing else in your mind at the time, might seem scary to you, but I think that if you give it a try you’ll enjoy what happens. And what happens is usually this:

  1. You hum a few notes, and you find that you create catchy patterns consisting of short, repeating ideas.
  2. Those ideas, if you just start humming, seem to centre themselves on certain chords, often the I, IV or V chords (in either major or minor).
  3. You find that you can imagine when chords might actually change.

All of this is to say that you already have the basic ability to imagine melodies, because you can also imagine chords and the general tempo and feel of music.

So why do so many songwriters like the chords-first process over the many melody-first methods? What is it about coming up with chords that makes songwriting seem easier than coming up with a melody? Mainly, it’s that you can create pretty good songs with very few chords. Even two chords can be enough to get most of a song worked out, like American’s “A Horse With No Name” (Em D6/add9)

And chords have a way of creating a mood almost immediately, while a melody (and this is usually a strength of the melody-first methods) can be manipulated into different moods depending on the chords and accompaniment specifics.

So if you’re going to write songs using the chords first method, you’ve probably got the mood of your music established pretty early on in the process. But what do you do to create melodies? How can you improve your ability to imagine melodies once you’ve got the chords?

Here’s a short list of ideas that will hopefully help you out:

  1. Create your chords, record them, and let them sit in your mind for several days. Listen to them over and over on a loop, and start improvising melodies vocally. It’s a great activity as you walk to work or school, or sit in your car at rush hour. And because you’re doing this over several days, you will likely find that your musical mind goes looking for new ideas, and that’s a good thing.
  2. Change how you play your chords. Alter the tempo, the time signature, the notes you choose to be the tops of the chords. The more you change the way you play the chords, the more likely it is that you’ll come up with something unique as a melody.
  3. Choose a good progression, but don’t stop experimenting. Some things to try: change up the order of the chords. For example, if you’ve chosen Am G Em Am as your basic progression, try Am Em G Am, and even try a different starting chord: Em G Em Am. Substitute chords. Nothing’s cast in stone.
  4. Explore vocal range. Play your chosen progression on a loop, and start by improvising melodies that are generally low in pitch. These ones will work well for verses. Then try melodies that are mainly high in pitch, comprised of short, catchy patterns that might work as a chorus hook.

By spending this kind of time on working out your melodies, you avoid the problem of melody boredom; chords-first has the inherent danger of making us ignore melody.

The main benefit of focusing as much as possible on melody early in your songwriting process is that you’re focusing on the bit that everyone will hum. You’ll notice any little problems with your melody right away, and it helps you as you start layering other components underneath it.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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One Comment

  1. I like making instrumentals for the Hip Hop genre and I find creating melodies the toughest to come up with. I struggle with the sense of direction part when it comes to melody writing. This advice is extremely helpful but tough to grasp. I won’t give up thanks Mr. Ewer

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