Many songwriters feel uncomfortable writing songs by starting with a melody. To them, a melody-first songwriting process means sitting with a digital recorder and mindlessly humming some notes until a usable melody miraculously appears.
Then you’ve got the task of adding chords to that new melody, and it all seems daunting.
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But writing a good song melody, and having that be the first step in a songwriting process, need not be so intimidating at all. I’d like to suggest a method that will help you create a song melody as a first step in your process — and one that can give you some musical confidence.
If you’ve never considered a melody-first method before, it’s likely that you’re starting new songs by strumming chords until something feels right. You build on those first few chords, and eventually you’ve got something that sounds hooky and good, and then you come up with a melody and lyrics.
The problem (as you see it) with starting with the melody is that you don’t have chords to help guide your melody-writing process. And because you don’t have chords, you imagine that any melody you come up with will sound random and unstructured.
So if that’s your fear, here’s a process that might help. In a way, it pulls together your comfort with the chords-first method, but then quickly switches to concentrating on writing a melody.
- With your guitar or keyboard instrument, improvise for 3-5 minutes on some chords. It’s important to note that these don’t need to be the actual chords your song will eventually use. It’s more a case of simply setting a mood, establishing a kind of “harmonic language”, and stimulating your creative mind.
- Set your instrument aside, and start humming melodies. By having played chords for the past 3-5 minutes, you’ll find that your melodies likely won’t sound random or unstructured. You’ll probably be pleased to notice that your melodies will sound pretty decent. Be sure to record your efforts with your smartphone or other digital recording device.
- Use repetition to your advantage. If you’ve been able to come up with a short catchy fragment, try repeating it. Repetition — either exact or approximate — is an important feature of most good melodies. Don’t concern yourself with what chords you might use to accompany this melody. Just start humming, throw in a few words, and see where this all takes you.
- Try to determine which section of your new song this melody could live in. Is this a chorus hook you’re imagining? Perhaps it’s a bit of verse? This can be an important part of knowing how to proceed with your idea.
- Make a recording of your new melody. This can be a tricky step because it means grabbing ideas together, keeping the good ones, and tossing the ones that aren’t really working.
Once you’ve got your new melody created using this process, pick up your guitar and start playing some chords to see what might work with it. You’ll likely notice that you’ve been humming melodies in the same key as whatever you were playing for chords in step 1.
When it comes to adding chords to your melody, start simple, and then (if you want) add complexity later.
Sometimes I like to think that when Freddie Mercury came up with “Love of My Life“, that he might have done this very process. I can picture him noodling away on the piano until that gorgeous melody entered his mind.
As you get some prowess with this melody-first process, you’ll find that you’ll start to have the confidence to hum melodies in step 2 without having to put your instrument away. At that point, you’ll feel confident that your melodies are taking precedence over the chords that might eventually accompany them.
And that’s important because if you really want a song that others can hum, you need to create melodies that grab attention; no one hums chord progressions.
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