OMPM Part 4 – Writing Memorable Melodies and Killer Chords
It’s Monday and you know what that means? It’s the newest installment in the One Man Production Machine series by Ed Elefterion.
If you missed the previous posts, check them out below:
- One Man Production Machine Introduction
- OMPM Part 2 – Capture the Audience With Your Songwriting
- OMPM Part 3 – How to Write Lyrics
Part 4 – Melody and Chords
Writing about Lyrics was easy compared to writing about Melody and Chords. Why? Everyone reading this can read English. We all share relatively the same vocabulary.
Music is a-whole-nuther language.
Either you understand music theory or you don’t. Since I’m surely talking to people in both camps, I’m going to err on the side of plain-speak and (try to) stay out of the weeds.
Most of the time I don’t struggle with melody. They come right out and the less I think, the better off I am. I used to think it was like that for everyone. Then I learned that it’s not. So, if melody is hard for you, you’re in great company.
Here are some tips to jump-start your melody engine.
Keyboards Show You Everything
If you’re a guitarist, you naturally pick up a guitar. If you’re a pianist, you gravitate towards a keyboard. If you’re not fluent with either of these two instruments:
Get Thee to a Keyboard.
Why? There are only 12 notes and you can see them all (in every octave) laid out before your eyes on a keyboard. The real question isn’t what notes to use but how do you arrange the 12 notes in front of you.
It’s a very rare melody that uses all 12 notes. Melodies usually end up using half that amount. Figure anywhere from 2 (yes, just 2) to 8 notes will do you fine.
I can’t stress the importance of this next tip. It can be hard to do because it makes you look at yourself (and your limitations) square in the face. That’s how it was for me, but once I did…it was a game-changer.
Find a key you’re comfortable singing in.
“Comfortable” means you’re not straining as you get higher and not trying to touch your chin to your chest as you get lower. (Singers naturally do this when the melody dips lower than their comfort zone).
Melody Starts at Home
I’m going to assume that you know enough about chords to form them on a keyboard (or a guitar).
Start your melody on the same note as your key: the “root” note (or the 1 chord). If you’re in C let the first note of your melody be C. If you’re in D, start on a D…and so forth.
Another reliable place to start is five steps above your root note. Here’s a list of 5th’s to help:
- C – G
- D – A
- E – B
- F – C
- G – D
- A – E
- B – F#
Why start on the 5th step? The 5th step is part of the root chord. And it’s a very pleasant sounding interval. You can also start on the 3rd step up from the root. Why? Again, it’s part of the root chord.
Notice a pattern?
Use the Main Chords of Your Key to Find a Melody
The main chords of any key are the 1, 4, and 5 chords. By combining the notes from these three chords, you can write entire songs. In fact, most popular music (rock, country, blues, pop, hip hop, electronica) stick to only these 3 chords…if that many. Lots of electronic music is based on just 1 chord…but man, they arrange the heck out of that chord.
Tips on how to Develop Melodies
- Keep it simple. (Performing is hard enough as it is).
- Get as much mileage out of one note as you can…because when you finally change notes, it’ll have a big impact. Not to mention that it’s easier for you to remember (and to get hooked in the listener’s head).
- Disjunct or Conjunct? One’s not better than the other but making a conscious choice often helps get things flowing.
- Disjunct means that the melody is made up of large intervals (The Star Spangled Banner).
- Conjunct means that the notes are next to each other (I Am the Walrus).
- Write for Your Range. Find your vocal comfort zone and create a melody that highlights it. I’ve written songs in A and then changed the key down to F# or even E. Why?
- It’s easier. (Singing is plain hard – why make it harder?)
- I’m confident I can hit the notes.
- I invest more of my performance in meaning.
- Singing becomes more fun.
- It sounds better.
Once I’ve got a melody, I need to flesh out the best chords to support it.
I always start by finding chords that include the notes of my melody. Obvious, but you gotta start somewhere. Once I find what key I’m in, I have no problem hearing where the chord changes and most times, where the chord is headed. That is: what chord is next.
When in doubt…or when the right chord isn’t obvious to me…I use my mind’s ear to hear the bass note, then I hum it while I hunt-and-peck to find it on my keyboard (or guitar), then build the chord from there.
There are major chords and minor chords. But it starts to get interesting when you add notes from outside those chords. I call these notes “color tones”. Sevenths are very popular and they work great. Everyone recognizes their sound and everyone likes the bluesy feel they bring. Sevenths may be enough for you. They were for Muddy Waters, B. B. King and countless others. All of blues music is built on little more than 7th chords.
I like getting into more colorful tones. It’s not hard to do. Basically, all the notes in between the notes of your standard chord are fair game. Add one and hear what happens. Throw a D into your C chord. Or an A or an F. Or…my personal favorite: try a B. Very dissonant. It’s a popular jazz trick to include the Major Seventh (one half-step up from the usual 7th) to give a chord depth and really change the emotional quality. Another way to think of building Major 7th chords is: add the note that’s a half-step down from the root.
Major 7th Example
Let’s assume you’re at a piano – it’s easiest to experiment there. If your chord is an E major…try adding an E flat in there. Experiment moving that E flat up an octave – to give it room to breathe. Now change the bass note from say E to B (the 5th) or to F# (the 2nd) or try putting the E flat down there. Sounds like the chords walking down now. You totally recognize that sound, I’m sure, because that walk down the scale is played in countless songs — from old vinyls to new releases. These little changes have a huge impact on the chord you started with, right?
And now you’re either hooked on this kind of experimenting or you’re not. Both results are great because now you know more about your own taste than you did a minute ago. You know what kind of sound combinations you feel at home with and you have a little more color on your palate than you did before.
Or…if you know all of this already…
Quit wasting your time and go on to something that’s more helpful to you.
Remember: use what you can and ditch the rest.
How I Used Chords in Since I Gave Up Hope…
You’ll notice I used that Major 7th chord in this song. Originally, my chorus used a C chord. I played with it and found that a C Major 7th gave a richer sound and I decided to substitute it for every C chord in the song.
This song is in 4/4 (the time signature) – I cover time signatures soon – and the key is E minor.
The chords for the verse and chorus are nearly identical – I go deeper into overall verse/chorus relationships in next week’s post.
- Verse chords: E minor, G, C Major 7th, and B minor 7th. Each chord lasts 4 beats (or 1 measure).
- Chorus chords: E minor, C Major 7th, B minor 7th. Here, the last chord lasts for 8 beats (2 measures).
So the difference between the Verse and Chorus arrangement is simple and very obvious. You can hear it clearly…but they still feel very close, and their tonal center (E minor) is identical.
The relationship between the Verse and the Chorus. I’ll go into detail about how each function in the overall structure of a song and how to distinguish and develop one from the other.
If you’re overwhelmed, you’re not alone. Shoot me an email and I’ll help you out with a…
I’ll listen to your demo, we’ll Skype for 15 min and I’ll tell you what I’d do. You can take my ideas (or not) and execute them yourself.
Or, if you want more direct help, we can talk about how much (or how little) you want me to be involved.
We’ll work out a fair price…I’m not in this for the money. I’m an artist, too, and I won’t exploit other artists. But more on this later.