Songwriting is a process that can start in many ways, because inspiration can strike in a variety of ways. A catchy hook may pop into your head, a clever lyric may suddenly tickle the tip of your tongue, or you may hear an instrumental beat and instantly get in the zone. But when it comes to sitting down and trying to write a song, with or without inspiration at the time, is there a best way to do it?
There may be, and we’ll discuss it in this article.
How to Start a Song: Chords vs Melody
Every song has to start somewhere. If you play an instrument, then there are generally two ways you can begin writing a song:
- Compose a melody and find the chords later, or
- Pick a chord progression and improvise from it.
But which method is the most effective? Which is the most common? And, most importantly, which will yield the catchier song?
What Comes First: Chords or Melody?
For pop songs, you are better off starting with the melody rather than the chords. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, though. It depends on the situation, your experience level, and what feels most comfortable for you. With that being said, I suggest a melody-first approach for beginner songwriters. This can teach you to optimize the catchiness of your songs.
There are two main reasons why I recommend melody being written first. They are:
- The hook is king
- Chords limit experimentation
The Hook is King
In pop genres, the most important component of a song is the melody line. In fact, I argue that the melody alone is the song; people will recognize it even without the instrumentation behind it.
In most situations, People don’t hum the chord progression of a song while they’re taking a shower. They hum the vocals. And, in pop songs, the voice is what plays the melody. If you aren’t putting the focus on the vocal line, then you’re missing the most crucial part of the song.
Chords Limit Experimentation
If you pick the chord progression first, there’s a chance the melody of your song will just follow the tonic or dominant notes of the chords. In other words, you’ll box yourself into fitting the chords, perhaps under the false assumption that melodies have to follow the chords.
But following the chords can lead to your melody either sounding overused or just plain boring.
My Own Experience
I’ve composed a lot of music in the last fifteen years using both the melody-start and chord-start methods.
Anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed that the songs which start as tunes tend to sound a bit more creative and get stuck in my ear more often. However, I’ve also spent many years as a guitarist building melodic phrases over jam loops, so I’ve learned not to box myself in when crafting melodies either.
An Alternative Approach to Composing
Inexperienced composers may rely on chords as a crutch by fitting the tune into the chords like I mentioned earlier. If you you can avoid that pitfall, then looping a chord progression and testing out different melodic runs can benefit your creativity and improve your hook-writing.
In that situation, starting with chords can lead you to melodic ideas you would not have thought of without the preexisting harmony with which to play counterpoint.
Numerous times I have sat down with a fresh set of lyrics but drawn a blank on how those words could transform into song, so I started plucking around on my acoustic guitar to find a vibe.
So both techniques have their place in certain situations. But I believe your melody should be the centerpiece of anything you write—whether it’s a song, an orchestral piece, a lo-fi track, post rock jam, or whatever.
What Do the Pros Say About This?
Rather than rely on just my own experiences, I also wanted to see what some popular and accomplished hit-makers had to say on the matter. To that end, I researched some well-known songwriters who have appeared on the Billboard charts to see if they had a preference: did they start with chords, or explore melodic lines first when composing their hits? Here’s what I found:
If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know, Max Martin is one of the most prolific songwriters in modern pop music with at least 25 Billboard-topping hit songs to his name. He had this to say about the song composition process:
“I can only speak for myself when I say that writing the melody first gives me more freedom than doing it the other way around…It’s very important to have a great melody…If you have one, build your song around that.”(Source)
I briefly purviewed the documentary about Ed Sheeran’s album titled Divide (the film is titled Songwriter if you want to watch it). From what I could gather it looks like Sheeran prefers to start strumming chords and mumble his way into lyrics and a melody. So 1 point for Chords.
I’m not a big Taylor Swift fan but she is undoubtedly a popular singer-songwriter. After some scant surveillance online I’ve noticed that she is an eclectic writer: she doesn’t appear to have a preference for melody or chords first. That is understandable. For many tracks, like “Tim McGraw”, she starts with a lyrical idea and records a vocal memo to capture a rough melodic outline and rhythm.
This is what I often do as well and I highly recommend keeping a recorder or phone app handy for these situation. But for other tracks, like “All Too Well”, she plugs along playing chords until she’s come up with lyrics. Lastly, I’ll mention that she has worked on tracks before with Max Martin; considering Martin’s emphasis on melody, I can dubiously speculate that Swift understands the importance of melodic interplay.
If you’ve never heard of her, she may have been ahead of your time. Bjork is an Icelandic singer-songerwriter who has penned over 30 songs that landed in the Billboard Top 40 chart.
When it comes to songwriting, she takes an odd but apparently effective approach: she does not record or write down her initial melody ideas but rather lets them steep in her head to see if they are catchy enough to remember at a later date. When asked what comes first in the songwriting process, she replied:
“The melody, always. It’s all about singing the melodies live in my head. They go in circles. I guess I’m quite conservative and romantic about the power of melodies. I try not to record them on my Dictaphone when I first hear them. If I forget all about it and it pops up later on, then I know it’s good
Those where just a select few songwriters but it shows the importance of balancing melody and harmony within a song. There is no standard method for composing music and different techniques provides different advantages.
To review, the benefits of starting with a melody include:
- More focus on the most important part of the song
- Less pressure on beginners to follow the chord progression
The benefits of starting with chords include:
- Easier to start strumming and improvise the tune to fit your words as you go
- Can get the ball rolling if you are totally blank on where to start
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