If you take a look back — way back — into the history of music composition, you’ll discover that writing music meant writing melodies. If you listen to something written in, say, around 1550, you’ll hear several melodies being sung together, harmonizing with each other, but not purposely creating chord progressions.
The chords were incidental; chords were structures that happened when several melodies were playing at the same time. It was all about the melodies. If you want to hear an example of what that sounded like, listen to Orlando di Lasso’s Motet for 8 Voices – Osculetur me Osculo, from the mid-16th century.
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Back then chords-first songwriting didn’t exist, because progressions (at least what we think of as progressions) didn’t exist. These days, chords-first songwriting is a popular process particularly for pop songwriters. You get a good chord progression working, then you add a melody on top, and there’s your song.
The only problem with chords-first songwriting is that the melody can sound a bit aimless or unimportant if you’re not careful. The chords might be working well, but there is a tendency to think that as long as the chords work well, the song will work well. That’s often not true.
The True Nature of Melody-First Songwriting
So the alternative might be to put your focus on the melody, and try a melody-first process. It’s the one I favour when I’m composing. But what you may not realize is that, unlike music from centuries ago, melody-first songwriting means you have to have a good grasp of chords.
Without a good grasp of the fundamentals of how chords work, your melody-first songwriting process will give you similar problems that a chords-first process has: focusing on one element while possibly ignoring another.
In order for a melody-first process to work well, you need to have a keen understanding of what makes a good chord progression. Melodies that are supported by weak chords, or progressions that don’t make sense, will make a melody sound bad, no matter how well-written the melody is.
Good melody-first songwriting means coming up with a good tune, but also (as that tune is being created in your mind) being aware of what chords will work with that melody.
In that sense, a melody-first process is actually a melody-and-chords process, where both are being worked out together. What makes it a melody-first process is the fact that you’ll find that most of your musical decisions will put melody first in importance.
If you’ve been wanting to try writing a song by coming up with the tune first, my suggestion would be to start your songwriting process by improvising on chord progressions. Be as creative as you can be, and strive to get beyond basic three- or four-chord progressions. Throw in altered chords, ones with added tones, inversions… anything that gets you beyond the basics.
This gets your musical mind moving in the right direction. Then take a little break, have a cup of coffee, and then get back into writing, but this time concentrate on inventing and singing melodies. Improvise chords, but try to imagine melodies. Let your decision-making process primarily favour the melody over the chords.
So if you’ve felt intimidated by concentrating on melodies as a primary focus in your songwriting, keep in mind that you don’t — in fact shouldn’t — abandon chords. The better the chords that you come up with, the better your melodies will sound.
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