How to Write Music


15. Adding Melody to Chords

Appendices:


Old (2005-2010) Article Series

Lesson 15: Adding Melody to Chords

(This lesson is about adding a melody to a chord progression once you have a chord progression. If you don't have a chord progression, start at Lesson 4: Chord Progressions.)

Words or melody first? Either one can come first, and you can try it both ways, but try creating your melody first, before adding words. For one thing, I think the melody is usually more important than the words. Here are some of my reasons:

  • In lots of popular songs, you can't even hear the words, so they must not be that important.
  • The same melody is used over again for each verse, while the words change. Sometimes the words even change in each chorus—again, using the same melody. This is because it's the melody which "ties the song together".
  • If you have words first, it's too easy to create a melody which fits your words but isn't really interesting. Starting without words forces you to look for a melody which is good enough to stand on its own.

If you're making up your melody by singing, you can just sing nonsense syllables or "dum da dum" until you add words later.

Just do it. So, how do you actually create a melody? There are lots of possible ways. The simplest to describe is "play songs, then just do it". That is, if you have played and sung some songs by other people (see Lesson 5: Playing Chord Progressions), then you may actually have some ideas about how melodies work, even if you don't know that you do. If you play a chord progression, and just try singing whatever comes into your head along with the chords, something nice might come out. This is probably how most songs you've ever heard were created.

However, whether or not you can "just do it", there are lots of things you can do to start, or learn more about, creating melodies:

Rhythm and pitches. A melody consists of rhythm and pitches. A melody is a sequence of notes, but each note happens at a certain time (rhythm) and has a pitch ("which note" it is, e.g. C or D#). It can help to get started if you just think about one element, rather than trying to imagine both rhythm and pitch at once. You can have a rhythm without pitches, by "talking" instead of singing the notes, or by tapping the rhythm on a table. But, you can't have pitches without a rhythm, because if you're singing a melody along with a chord progression, you have to sing the notes at some certain time. So, if you want to start with just one element, I think it makes sense to start with rhythm. You can start learning about rhythm in Lesson 14: Rhythm - The Beat. If you can already play and read rhythms, then you can learn about creating rhythms in Melody Rhythm.

Or, if you're more interested in pitch, you can start at Lesson 8: Pitch Names - Letters, Lesson 12: Intervals - Steps, Pitches In Chords, or Melody Pitch. You should start with the first one of these that you don't already know all about.

What notes are you singing? Or, maybe you can already create a melody just by singing, but you want to know which notes you're singing. For this, you need Ear Training.

Finally, if you already know how to choose notes that sound good with your chords, you can start learning about combining notes into attractive melodies in Melody Patterns.

by Conrad Albrecht 2015. Questions, comments, ideas? Tell me on Facebook!


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