Chords-First Songwriting

Giving Your Melodies Some Shape in the Chords-First Songwriting Process

There’s an inherent danger in writing songs by starting with the chords, which is that the melody can get a bit static and uninteresting. You may have come up with a chord progression you really like, but when you try to add a melody to that, you often find yourself stuck on one or two notes.

There’s a reason that happens: because you’re vamping back and forth on, let’s say, two chords (C-Bb, for example), the melodic ideas that you come up with tend to sit around one or two notes, fitting with whatever the chord of the moment is.

How to Harmonize a MelodyGetting melodies and chords working well together is vital knowledge for any songwriter. “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you, step by step, how that works, and gives you sound samples to follow.

That’s certainly not to say that the chords-first method won’t work. And in fact, I’ve written an eBook (“Writing a Song From a Chord Progression“) that deals with these sorts of problems and hopefully makes the chords-first process work a little better for you.

So if the main problem with the chords-first songwriting method is that you might create a static, uninteresting melody, here’s something you can try to help mitigate that problem:

  1. Play your chord progression a few times.
  2. Find a starting note that’s relatively low in your voice, and sing that note a few times while playing your progression. That starting note should be a note that belongs to your first chord. So if your first chord is C, your starting note should be the note C, E or G.
  3. Since it’s quite possible that your starting note will work with your first chord but not the following chord(s), change your note by moving it up or down so that it works with your second chord.
  4. As you repeat your progression, move your voice higher so that you’re now singing a higher tone belonging to your first chord. Then as you switch to your second chord, sing a note higher than your second-chord note choice in the previous step.

At this point, you’ve played your progression twice, and you’ve created what amounts to a melody with contour — shape: a four-note melody that moves gradually upward. Do the process several times, picking different notes. Here’s one of probably dozens of possibilities:

Those four notes can serve as the start of a melody that has a hint of shape and design, not the usual static melody that sits around on one or two notes that you might be used to. You can create a longer melody with an inverted-U shape by repeating the procedure and working your melody downward.

The main purpose of this procedure is to get you thinking of a mobile, fluid melody that likes to move around, rather than one that sits on one or two notes. Because that is the main challenge of the chords-first songwriting method.

And remember, when people recall your song and hum it, it isn’t chords that they’re likely to be humming — it’s a melody. And if you want people to truly remember your song, they’re more likely to remember a tune than a chord progression.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook Bundle“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” 10-eBook bundle includes several chord progression eBooks, including “Chord Progression Formulas”. Learn how to create chord progressions within seconds using these formulas. Get the free deal!

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