Melody-first songwriting

What’s Better: Melody First, or Chords First Songwriting?

The title of this blog post sounds like a trick question, because you’d probably think that I’m going to say, “Neither is best – it’s whatever suits the musical ideas rolling around in your mind at any given time.”

That, of course, is logically the best answer. But for me, I’ve always found melody-first songwriting is the better way to go in most cases, for several reasons.

First, I find it hard to imagine “disembodied” chord progressions — chords that just appear in my mind with no melody or anything else attached to them. To me, chords are the backdrop that makes everything else sound great. In that sense, chords are a little like wallpaper, and I find it hard to imagine wallpaper without imagining everything else in a room.

Also, when it comes to chords, they either work or they don’t. If they work well (i.e., if they properly target the tonic chord), I don’t find a progression, by itself, to be overly inspiring. Again, like wallpaper, good chords can add lots of mood and feeling, but they need other things to really make them alive.

But a good melody can offer much more, and the two most important characteristics are:

  1. A good melody implies the chords that will make it work.
  2. A good melody, even just on its own, conveys a strong sense of emotion and mood.

The thought of starting the songwriting process by trying to think up a melody makes a lot of songwriters feel nervous. We’re so used to having chords present to act as a kind of musical guide that we think that if we just try to think up melodies without the chords present, we’ll just think up garbage.

But the actuality is usually that we have such a strong sense of chords that when we conjure up a melody, we’re likely going to think up something that has a strong sense of tonal structure.

In other words, it’s hard to think up garbage.

A few years back I wrote a blog post about this very topic, and I offered a few simple steps to experiment with melody-first songwriting. It’s very basic, but if you’ve been feeling nervous about trying the melody-first process, you might try the ideas in that article as a starting point, and then see if you can expand on that process.

It’s called “6 Easy Steps For Melody-First Songwriting“, and has sound samples to help guide you.

Once you’ve got a melody, and assuming you’ve written something that really sounds like it has good musical structure, it helps guide your chord progression creation phase, because a melody that has tonal structure influences your chord writing, and helps you create chords that similarly have strong tonal structure.

And the main reason that you might do a melody-first process is that it puts the spotlight on your melody, and that gives you the best chance of creating a tune that really sounds great.

Remember, one of the most important ways to make sure you’ve got a song that your fans will remember is to give them a melody they can hum and recall.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary! It seems that starting with chords often leads a writer to use default writing habits within their comfort zones, and those habits are learned from other writers’ or players’ comfort zones, especially with rhythm guitar based songwriting.

    Before even thinking of melody ideas, writers who accompany themself with a guitar will often strum or fingerpick a 4-bar chord progression and hum/sing the melody over top to see what sounds good to them. The major problem with this is that it’s often the same chord choices, same movements, and same style of rhythmic choices of how the chords sit and/or resolve. The writer will then sing typical melody notes that only belong to the chords (ignoring appoggiaturas or accented non-chord tones), and often use the same melodic patterns (motifs) with either limited pitch span (less than 9-10 semitones) or the same starting point (anacrusis or a lead-in).

    This all leads to the same sounding song that everyone has heard a million times and doesn’t lend well to retaining a balance of surprise and attention. If a writer is aware of these pitfalls, they can definitely start with chords and consciously make different choices such as:

    -Using borrowed or chromatic chords
    -Using less common progressions with less common harmonic degrees (example, instead of going from the tonic to the major IV, a writer can go to the minor II or major III)
    -Not using the tonic chord as the first chord when the melody starts, and instead later resolve to the tonic at the end of the melodic phrase
    -Using irregular phrase structure such as 3, 5, 6, 7, 9, or 10 bar phrases instead of typical 2, 4, and 8 bar phrases.

    Although the above choices can help to come up with new melodic ideas, there still is a problem with a writer gravitating towards default comfort zone choices such as:

    -Not using accented non-chord tones (appoggiaturas).
    -Using a limited pitch span in melody (less than 9 semitones). It is a myth that a writer should wait until the chorus to introduce a wider range. The overwhelming majority of timeless songs reach or exceed 9-10 semitones in 10 seconds or less! “Yesterday” by The Beatles for example reaches a full octave in less than 5 seconds! That’s well before the chorus.
    -Not using a variety of inflections, leaps, and tasteful amount of stepwise motion
    -Not starting the melody at a point other than a beat or two before the first bar (anacrusis). Starting on the first beat of the first bar or waiting a bit to syncopate the melody is an excellent way to surprise the listener

    Writers need to have a conscious awareness of these potential choices otherwise they will never break out of their comfort zones and that’s the death of creativity!

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