Do Melodies Have to Follow Chords?
I often see beginner songwriters and producers get confused about the relationship between melody and their accompanying chords. I want to briefly clarify how melody and chords fit together in the composition process so that you can write better songs easier.
Do Melodies Have to Follow Chords?
When someone talks about a melody “following” a chord, what they usually mean is that—for whatever chord is playing in any given bar—the melody notes will come from that chord. This is most easily explained with an example. Say your chord for the first bar is C major, which is made up of the notes: C, E, and G. If you were to “follow” the chord, then your melody for that bar would only include the notes C, E, and/or G; then, if the next bar was an A minor chord (notes A, C, and E), the melody in the next bar would only include A, C, and/or E. This would go on for each chord in each bar.
So now that you understand what we’re really talking about, let’s clarify: do melodies have to follow chords?
No, a melody can be written completely independent from the chords and you are not limited just to notes that appear in the chord for each bar. HOWEVER…for pop music, the melody and the chords should usually be in the SAME KEY so it all sounds like it fits together.
There is no requirement that you fit the melody line to the chords. In fact it often works the other way around, where you fit the chords to the melody. Especially if you already have a killer hook and you’re trying to find chords to go with it. Melodies that are strictly written to follow the chords can honestly start to sound overused or boring. When you start adding in non-chord notes, your tunes will sound more emotionally complex and build melodic interest.
If you already have a chord progression and you are trying to write a melody to go with it, feel free to experiment with the whole range of notes in your given key.
Does the Melody Have to Be in the Chord?
Another way I’ve heard this question asked is: does the melody have to be “in” the chord? Again no, the melody can include any notes in the scale and not just the notes in the chord for each bar. As long as the chords and the melody notes share the same scale (and by effect, the same key), all of those notes will sound natural together. It’s not the individual chords that limit your selection of notes, but rather the key. I know I’m repeating myself, but I want to hammer this point home. I’ve heard some musicians argue that the melody needs to contain notes that are in the chords, and that is a severely limited musical perspective.
If you want to get really technical, you are actually creating a NEW CHORD when you play a non-chord melody over a specific chord. Let me use an example: I play an F major chord on my guitar (containing F, A, and C notes), but then I sing an E note over that F major chord. If you look at the chord as being only what the guitar is playing, then you may consider that melody to be “outside” of the chord. But if you look at the entire harmonic composition of every instrument playing at the same time than what we actually have is an F7M chord. The entire chord then is really F, A, C and E; but only a fragment of it is being played on the guitar.
This limited harmony perspective may be due to people learning music in different ways. I’ve spent about a decade composing music for orchestral instruments, most of which can only play one note at a time. Because of this, I’ve learned to see the chord as the entirety of notes being played on all the instruments. But people who just sing over guitar or piano don’t normally learn music theory by arranging a horn ensemble, so the “bigger picture” perspective may not cross their minds.
I’m not trying to chastise anyone who advocates for following the chord, I’m just trying to show you that a chord is not actually limited to what the guitar is strumming. All the notes being played at one time, on however many instruments are making noise, make up the full chord. So you can use whatever note you want for your melody and even if it’s not “in” the backing chord, it will still work with the overall harmony as long as it’s in the same key.
And even being in the same key is really just a guideline for pop formats, because pop tends to aim for musical consonance (where everything sounds like it works together). But if you want to get experiment with your music, you can definitely try any crazy accidental notes that your heart desires. It all depends on what emotion or mood you want your music to convey.
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