In my own composing of music, I would far rather work out a melody first, and then add the chords as a second step. That’s because melodies are what people hum to themselves; it’s hard to hum a chord progression.
Many songwriters, however, work out the chord progression and backing rhythms first. There is one advantage to starting that way: chords do a lot to establish a mood for a song. If you work out chords, and then develop a playing style for those chords, a listener can usually pick up the mood of the music right away.
But I like the melody-first method of writing. And here’s the interesting part: I know that as I work out the melody, I am also imagining the chords that might go with that melody, so in that sense, a melody-first songwriting process is, in fact, a melody-and-chords process.
At first you may feel intimidated by the melody-first songwriting process. You probably think that without chords already in place to guide you, the melodies you come up with will sound disorganized or musically haphazard. But this is not usually the case.
In fact, most songwriters are surprised by how well they can imagine melodies out of thin air when required to do so. Most songwriters will instinctively do the things that create good melodies:
- They imagine melodies that use mainly stepwise motion with occasional leaps.
- They use repetition of catchy melodic cells, like most good songs do.
- They tend to use contrast instinctively, having melodies move sometimes up, sometimes down, and allow vocal style to change to help create different moods.
- They usually create melodies that make tonal sense; in other words, the notes of the imagined melody conform to some simple chord progression in the back of their minds.
That last point is what will help to guide your melody-writing process. It’s actually hard to imagine a melody that is musically chaotic. Your past musical experience usually does not abandon you.
Adding Chords to Already-Existing Melodies
Once you have that melody, you’ve likely got a good idea of a simple progression that could properly harmonize with it. But especially if that progression is a simple one, don’t feel that you have to keep it. You can always create substitutes for the simple progressions. In any case, adding progressions means focusing on the strong beats — beats 1 and 3 of a typical 4/4 bar of music, and putting chord changes there.
Creating chord substitutions is something I write a lot about on this blog, so if you feel you need some guidance in creating substitute chords, please check out this blog post from a few years back: “8 Tips to Guide Your Search for Chord Substitutions.”
I think there is a good reason for any aspiring songwriter to focus on melodies first — by giving melodies a more prominent place in your songwriting process, you work on them more. You are more likely to create something that is catchy and well-contoured.
And a melody-first process does not mean that other aspects of your song, including the writing of good lyrics, need to suffer. Once you’ve written that good melody and you turn your attention to chords and lyrics, you still have the opportunity to return to working on the melody, even changing it if the chords and lyrics you want to use require it.
It may take some practice, but I hope you give a melody-first process a try.
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