Keyboardist songwriter

Chords or Melody: Where Should You Put Your Focus?

Some songwriters start their process by working out a good chord progression as a first step. From there, they automatically create a backing rhythm that brings that progression to life. Once they’ve done that, the mood it generates makes them feel comfortable coming up with bits of melody and lyric, and the song starts to take form.

There is another process that is less-used by songwriters, but, I would argue, should be worked on and practiced by all songwriters, and that’s putting the focus directly on the melody as a first step.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” - 4th ed.Words and music need to act as partners in a song, but how do you make sure your melody is helping your lyric? That’s what Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” deals with. Get it as part of the 10-eBook Bundle, or purchase it separately.

For songwriters who are chords-first writers — the ones who don’t like the melody-first process — the reason is usually that they don’t feel comfortable creating melodies if they don’t know what the chords are going to be. Since chords tell us what melody notes are possible, it might feel a bit too random to try to create melodies without chords as a guide.

How a Melody-First Process Actually Works

There is a commonly-believed myth in songwriting land that says that a melody-first process means coming up with a tune and then pulling chords out of thin air, putting them together until the melody sounds properly harmonized.

This is, as I say, a myth. Melody-first writing doesn’t work that way, and no good composer of music would or could tolerate the randomness of such a process.

The way it actually works is this: a melody-first process starts by imagining a short phrase of melody — maybe only 4 or 5 notes — but also imagining the chords that could accompany that melody. It’s not random. In fact, the choice of melody notes is guiding what chords are going to be possible.

That’s why I talk about this kind of writing as depending on where you put your focus. You focus on melody, even as you are also thinking about what chords might work with it. And once your melody is working well, you can keep creating and then changing your chord choices until you like the combination of chords and melody.

Melody-First is Not as Random as You Think

To get you started in a melody-first process, try strumming one chord on your guitar, then humming a note in your low or medium range. Now here’s the neat bit: if you start “randomly” humming a melody, you are very unlikely to hum a melody that sounds like garbage. It’s likely going to sound organized around a chord progression you haven’t even invented yet.

It’s actually hard to create a melody that sounds like a random collection of notes with no tonal organization. Most of the time, the melodies you improvise will sound structured. If you’ve never tried a melody-first process before, this will probably surprise you.

As you proceed with this method, try adding chords to new bits of melody, but keep the focus on the melody: do you like what you’ve come up with? Let the melody be the guide.

How to Harmonize a MelodySo it means that you start by creating a melody that has an interesting contour — a captivating shape — and then go looking for the chords that support it. If you think that you won’t be able to add chords to a melody you’ve created as a first step, I’ve written an eBook that addresses that very task: “How to Harmonize a Melody” is part of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting 10-eBook Bundle.

If you’ve never tried writing songs by starting with the melody, I hope you give it a try. The benefit is that, with practice, your melodies will sound more interesting, and they’ll be the kind of tunes that stick in the memories of the people who hear them.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

Hooks & RiffsHooks 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.

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