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How to write a song: a melody first approach

Reading time: 6 minutes

There are lots of different approaches when it comes to songwriting. Some people prefer to start with the lyrics while others prefer starting with music. There's no right or wrong way to go about the process: but you may find certain approaches work better for you than others. In this article we're going to look at an approach that focuses on the music first. Whilst that can appear a little daunting, its arguably the more natural way. If you think of the most memorable songs, what is it you remember about them? Even if you don't remember the words, chances are you'll remember the tune or melody. It's the melody more than the lyrics that gets stuck in your head. You find yourself humming it as you go about your day. That's what makes a good melody so important to a song. It's the bit that if you get right will really stick with people.

Creating the melody:

So how do you go about creating a great melody from nothing? This approach will show you that it’s more fun and easier than you think! You don’t need much to do this just:

  1. Your voice
  2. Something to play a few chords.
  3. An audio recorder

For a melody that is going to have lyrics - i.e. be sung by a person - the best instrument to use is your voice. That way you won’t be tempted to do things that can be played on an instrument but are too difficult to actually sing. Things like huge leaps, long strings of notes or rapid changes. They might sound great on a violin or piano, but they’ll be a nightmare for a singer. Even if you aren’t a great singer, if you can hum or sing the melody yourself then you can be sure that it can be sung.

Step one: create a chord loop

For playing your chord loop you can use an instrument, a guitar, keyboard or piano is perfect, or you can use an app. There are tons of free apps available that can play a chord sequence. Checkout GarageBand or ChordBot on mobile or you can use SongPad. Just create a free account, start a new song and click on the "Chords" tab. You'll find a list of common chord progressions that you can play instantly. Music snobs might tell you that you need to write a complicated chord progression using a lot of “colourful” inversions and voicings. Sure, that can add interest and depth, but a lot of the most popular songs in the world use a simple four chord progression that repeats for the entire song. So, if you’re an experienced musician feel free to get creative here. If you're familiar with DAWs you can create a loop and add drums, bass, etc. but don’t get distracted by making a full production at this stage. If you’re a beginner you don’t need to do any of those things. You don’t need to know about all this stuff, just try a simple chord progression like G D Em C and just stick it on repeat. The chords are just there to form the backing for the melody, it’s the melody that’s king. Anyone can hum or sing to themselves so don’t let lack of musical training put you off!

Step two: compose a melody

Now that you have your chord loop here’s where the real fun starts. You’re going to play your chords over and over again and sing random melodies while recording what you are doing. If you’re working in an app or DAW you should be able figure out how to record pretty easily. If you’re using a piano, guitar or OneMotion then you’ll need something else to record with. You can head over to, login and start a new song. On the left hand side you’ll find a “Recordings” option. This will allow you to record what you are doing and save it with your song in the cloud so nothing gets lost.

So, hit record, play your chords and just start singing. Sing whatever sounds you want - you don’t have to sing actual words. Sing “doo da da” or “la la la” or make random noises, it doesn’t matter. If you do find yourself singing a real word or phrase that's fine, but don’t focus on it at this stage. Right now you should focus on the melody. Try to sing a melody that sounds interesting. Keep recording for a few minutes. Carry on until you’ve come up with something good or run out of ideas. Stop the recording and listen back. See if you like something you have come up with. Start again and see if you can improve on an idea or come up with something better. Do this until you have a melody for each section of your song that you are happy with. Remember to pay particular attention to the chorus. This should be the most memorable part of the song with the most catchy melody.

You might want to check out these articles for tips on melody writing:

Write the lyrics to the melody

Step three: write the lyrics for your chorus

Because it’s the most important part of the song, starting with the chorus when writing your lyrics makes a lot of sense. It’s the central part, everything else pivots around it. The verses fill in the back story and provide the detail. So if you know what your chorus is it can make writing the verses easier and help avoid writer's block.

You want your chorus to be as strong and powerful as possible. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to have lots of words or different ideas. In fact, repetition in a chorus is a good thing. It’s called the chorus because it's the bit of the song where everyone should join in and sing along. So you want it to be simple and repetitive enough for people to get quickly, but not so repetitive that it’s tedious.

Listen to your melody recording as you write. Did you sing a word or phrase while creating the melody that stands out? Listening to the shape of the sounds can you now hear a word or phrase that would fit? If you get stuck you can use the tools in SongPad to help spark ideas. Check out this blog post if you need some additional tips. As you write pay attention to the syllable counter at the beginning of each line to make sure your lyrics are going to fit with your melody.

Step four: write the lyrics for your other sections

Once you have the chorus written you should have an idea of what the song will be about. Use the verses and other sections to fill in the details and background information. You might want to literally work backwards from the chorus line by line, i.e. start with writing the last line of the verse rather than the fist. Ask yourself - what question or statement might someone ask that would lead them to give the “answer” the chorus contains? Asking yourself questions can be really helpful when trying to write the lyrics for verses and other sections. If you get stuck checkout the Outline section of SongPad. You’ll find a whole bunch of questions there that will help you think about the details and background to the story you are telling in your song.

Step five: take a break

Once you have the first draft of your lyrics you should take a break! Spend some time doing something completely different. Focussing on your song for too long without a break can give you tunnel vision. You’ll start to lose perspective. Go off and do something else.

Step six: edit the lyrics

Once you’d have a break come back to your song. Play the recording of the melody and sing the lyrics through. Ask yourself: is there anything that doesn’t sound right? Are there words that don’t really fit the melody? Is there a line that doesn’t make sense? Is there anything you’ve put in there just to rhyme which doesn’t really add to the story? Make every word count. Use word tools to check for alternatives if you think there is anything that can be improved.

Once you have completed all the steps above you will have a complete song - congratulations! How did you find this approach? Did it make it easier for you to complete your song or harder? Remember there is no right or wrong way to write a song, different approaches work differently for different people. Find what works for you, but don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches. You’ll likely find that you write differently depending on the process you use.

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