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Chords or Melody, What Comes First?

     Considering that melody and chords are one of the great building blocks of songwriting, one can wonder where to start first: chords or melody? Each approach can bring something different to the table so, read on:

Melody-First Approach

     A melody-first songwriting process implies that the first step in our music composition is to compose a melody and once we have a significant of it done, we can start putting chords to it. However, if you ever noticed, once you start hearing a melody in your head you also audiate the implied harmony that the melody is outlining. So, most of the time, as soon as you start working on a melody you get the feel for when the chords are changing and what type of chords (i.e. major or minor) you will want to use.

     That said, a melody-first process means that you are composing a melody with at least a vague idea of the chords that will support it. Because we are pattern seekers, when we hear a melody, our mind starts to group those notes and forming chords to go with it. And if you are a more experienced musician, you will immediately know what those chords are.

     Although we are able to listen to an implied harmony in the melody we are working on, that doesn’t mean that we cannot change those chords. You can either go along with the implied harmony or, because you know where you will want something different, you can choose a different chord for that melody section – see how to harmonize a melody; and there are lots of options and techniques for you to explore. Once you know what the chords will be, you can start looking for alternative chords that can still support the melody.

     Here are some ways that we are able to imagine chords on top of a melody that we might be working on:

  • most likely those chords are changing every 2 or 4 beats (1 bar); or every 2 bars
  • normally, we go for the harmonic effect created by the chosen chord with first couple of melody notes; or how the chord interacts with the melody when it is played

     The main benefit in this approach is that as soon as you start creating a melody, you have immediate access to chords that can go along with it. The other benefit is that depending on the way you approach with this process – if it is by singing the melody yourself or trying out the melodic shapes on your instrument; the chances of that melody having a more natural feel is greatly increased: A melody that excites the listeners and one they can remember and hum. After all, it is the spotlight of your song!

     Also, don’t forget that most likely you will want your melody to be sung so, be mindful of the lyrics. More often than not, the words that you use give you a great insight to the rhythm of your melodies and may also aid in generating new melodic ideas based on their natural contour; or the way the words are pronounced. In sum, the lyrics also play a vital role in this process.

The Chords-First Approach

     Some composers or songwriters like to start with this approach because chords can give you a good sense of mood which in turn may help you with lyrics and melodies. You also start to explore rhythmic approaches to your song arrangement, which will contribute to build a clearer picture of the song as a whole.

     But just because you have a chord progression, it doesn’t mean that you will have a melody that works well. Remember that the people who listen to your song, they hum the melody not the chord progression. So, it goes without saying that getting your melody right is crucial.

     However, as a starting point, chord progressions can give you a good hint to your melodic lines since the chord movement has an implicit melody that is created while going from chord to chord. To do this you can always try to use more typical chord progressions – the ones you can find in most Pop songs; and then go from there.

     Here are some tips to start creating a melody on top of your existing chord progression:

  • Use a small melodic fragment or melodic motif that sounds good to you and then create variations based on it to sing over that chord progression
  • Alternate between having the chords to support your melody or just the bassline as a way of providing you with a different harmonic perspective. Most of the time, we are aware of the extremes in register – the bass and the top melodic line and these usually inform and complement each other because they are moving in contrary motion or in similar direction using mostly consonant intervals, for example.
  • Good melodies have a sense of direction – see the importance of repetition and microform. Repetition helps you to give sense to your musical ideas because it legitimizes your musical statement, so to speak; it reinstates the idea by repeating or flirting with it through the use of variations.

     Remember that an unique chord progression may throw your melody to places that otherwise you wouldn’t go and thus adding an element of unpredictability and excitement in your music. If your chord progression sounds unique, chances are that your melody will also sound fresh because it presents different possibilities for it. So, this is obviously a good reason to embrace this chords-first approach.

     In case you start to feel that your main melodic ideas sound a bit redundant, it may be because you are being influenced by the implicit melody that is created while moving from chord to chord. There is nothing wrong in letting yourself be influenced by the harmonic melody. Just be aware if it’s not making your melody sound more ordinary than what you would like. A good way of solving this is by taking out the other chord tones except for the one in the bass, as mentioned in the second point above. Or you can just turn the songwriting process around and in that section you focus on the melody-first approach.

     It goes without saying that these approaches are interchangeable and you should be using the one that either jumpstarts you musical creation process, or the one that helps you solve a problem that you might be facing. It is true in this case as it is with every other technique that you learn to use in music composition.

Happy Composing!

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