Historically, music was all about melody, not chord progressions. In fact, if you go back in time a few hundred years, let’s say to the 1400s or 1500s, the concept of “harmony” was a bit different from what we have today. In those days, “harmony” was what happened when various melodies were played at the same time.
If you want to know what that sounded like, give this a listen. It’s English composer John Dunstable’s “Quam pulchra es” (“How Beautiful”). There’s no denying that you’re hearing gorgeous harmonies and chords when you listen, but those harmonies are formed by the coinciding of three different lines of melody; it’s not a melody line with chords accompanying it.
Trying to get the chords-first songwriting process working? Your main concern with chords-first songwriting will usually be the creation of good, memorable melodies. Read “Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“, and discover the secrets to making this process work well for you.
Starting in the late 16th century, a shift in the way people heard and wrote music happened. The upper line of multi-voice music started to be heard as being a more important melody than the other lines. The bottom line started to act more as a kind of bass line, and the middle lines filled in what would eventually be known as harmony.
So when you hear a piece of music written by Mozart in the later 1700s, you’re hearing a melody line on the top, a bass line on the bottom, with the other instruments filling in harmonies and chords, like his well-known “Ave verum corpus“. The melody is in the upper soprano line, and that’s where we’re constantly listening. The double bass is playing the bass line, and the other instruments are mainly filling in the chords.
Once that shift to hearing melody mainly in the top line happened, music started to sound more like “melody and chords” — not the mere coinciding of several melodies.
That may seem unimportant, but it significantly changed the way some writers of music — particularly writer’s in pop music genres — composed. It started to become an option: you could write a melody and then find chords to fit it, or you could start with a chord progression and create a melody on top of it.
Many songwriters like the chords-first option, not just because it’s easy to create chord progressions quickly, but also because chords (and the way they’re played ) will offer a mood right away, and that can help with creating a song topic, and with developing a lyric.
Getting Better Melodic Ideas
But if you’re a chords-first songwriter, you are well acquainted with the problem of playing chords over and over, but only coming up with lame melodic ideas: nothing good seems to be coming to mind.
If that’s the case, here’s a good way to help your creative brain come up with new ideas: revoice your chords.
By revoicing I simply mean to move the chords up or down on the fretboard or keyboard: find as many alternate playing positions for your chords as possible.
As you do this, you’ll start to find that you hear different melodic possibilities. These new possibilities come about because as you revoice your chords, a different note is happening at the top. Sliding your hand further up the fretboard to find a new voicing gives you not just a new upper note, but also gives you a different sound.
The new upper note is significant because, as we know historically, we tend to hear the upper note as a melody note. So if you keep strumming the same chords using the same standard positions on the fretboard, it’s hard for your musical mind to create a new melody to try out.
If you’re a chords-first songwriter, learning as many different voicings for your chords as possible will be one of the best strides forward in your melody-writing that you can experience. It will take practice, but it’s practice that’s going to pay off well!
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