A few days ago I wrote a post in which I talked about the chords-first method of songwriting (“Giving Your Melodies Some Shape in the Chords-First Songwriting Process“), and warning of the main pitfall of this process: the ignored and uninteresting melody that might result.
As in all things in songwriting, you can find exceptions to anything you extoll as an important guideline. In this particular case, as soon as I had written that post, I started to wonder if there are any good examples of music that seems to be mainly all about the chord progression, with no, or almost no, melody.
The answer is yes. And in fact, the composer J.S. Bach, known for his beautifully crafted melodies (“Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring“, as one famous example), also wrote the equally famous “Prelude in C Major” for keyboard. As you can hear, its chord progression figures prominently in a series of arpeggiated chords, but it’s difficult to identify a melody:
In music like this, you can sometimes hear the topmost notes of the chords as being a kind of melody, and perhaps that’s what Bach wanted us to notice. But what we seem to appreciate and enjoy most is the beautiful series of chords themselves. There’s a kind of momentum and direction that we pick up from the chords, with seemingly little need for a melody to hum.
The French composer Charles Gounod took this Bach Prelude in C Major and created a melody above the chords (he called it “Méditation sur le Premier Prélude de Piano de S. Bach”, often also called “Ave Maria” when sung.). You can hear that the lovely melody he wrote works well with the chords — a seemingly natural fit.
But the Prelude works beautifully well even without Gounod’s contributed tune.
There are other examples of music from the classical world where the chords seem to take precedence over the melody. The well known “Pachelbel Canon” is a good example. There are definitely melodies, but we seem to fixate almost entirely on the strong and engaging set of chords.
Another French composer, Charles-Marie Widor, a composer of organ symphonies, wrote a “Toccata” for his fifth symphony. Again, there are melodies, but with the constant “broken chords” that we hear, we tend to focus primarily on the chords.
So if melody’s supposed to be so important…
So what does all this mean for songwriters? Is it actually possible to write music that gives us little or even nothing for a melody? And if melody is so important because it gives us something to hum, as I’ve been asserting, what accounts for the high popularity of these seemingly melody-less musical works?
Because most pop music is sung, you obviously need to be able to give the singer something to sing. And once a voice enters the musical performance, we find our attention moves from whatever we were enjoying before to the voice. And as Gounod shows with his “Ave Maria” melody, if you’re going to write a melody, you’d better make it a good one!
And so the answer to whether or not you can write a song with with minimal melody, the answer is yes, you can write an instrumental that seems to be all about the chords, as long as those chords are tonally strong, pulling the listener in and engaging them.
And one other thing: you’ll notice that the instrumentals that seem to be all about the chords tend to use chords that are simple, very common, and tonally strong, not unique or overly inventive.