Songwriter U: Songwriting—The Melody

Written by Katia Sanakai for Guitar Tricks and 30 Day Singer

Videos by American Songwriter

Writing a song or lyric can seem intimidating if you sit down and try to write from nothing. Some people think you need extensive music theory training or singing lessons. But there’s a technique to writing music that makes it much more manageable. We’ll break it down a little bit for you and you’ll see how straightforward it can be. 

  1. Grab a reference instrument: a guitar, a ukulele, a keyboard, or even an app that can play chords. When it’s time to put your song together, you want it to fit into a framework that musicians can play with you to build the arrangement. You can also find backing tracks with chord progressions on YouTube (particularly jazz changes and the blues). You do not have to be an expert at an instrument at all; you just need to know enough to play some simple progressions (sequences of chords). Remember, three and four-chord songs can get you a long way in popular music.
  2. Beef up your music theory. While you don’t need to have the circle of fifths memorized, a bit of theory info at your fingertips doesn’t hurt. Every chord you play has 3 foundational notes (sometimes called a triad). When you play guitar chords, those 3 notes are built into the chord. When you play a piano or keyboard, you need to build it yourself within the key you are playing. Chords on the piano are built by stacking two-thirds on top of each other (i.e. playing with your thumb, middle and pinky fingers).

    Whether you are playing an acoustic instrument or using a digital one, each chord is built using those three foundational notes. They are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes in the key you want to play.

    For example, the key of C contains the following notes: C D E F G A B C (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8)
              -a C chord is built using the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes: C E G (1-3-5)
              -a Dm chord would have D, F, A
              -an F chord would have F, A, C.

    So you can see that chords are built using skips on the scale. Those three notes can be doubled (played again higher or lower) or extra notes can be added for color and interest. (like a seventh, second or sixth). When you see numbers attached to a chord name, that is instructing you to add the numbers of the scale that aren’t in the 1-3-5 triad.
  3. Pick a key! Once you’ve got your reference instrument (or digital one), and you can play a few chords in succession, you are ready to start songwriting. Pick a key you can play in. Remember those 3 foundational notes when you sit down to write your melody. Let’s go back to our key of C reference. If you start your song with a C chord that contains C, E, and G, you will also want to start singing on a C, E, or G. Starting on the root note (also called the “do” or “tonic”) is really common.

    You don’t need to only use those three notes in your vocal melody, but you likely want to start each measure on a note that fits into the chord and step or jump between them. Think of the 1-3-5 triad as a landing spot- you can rest there, hold a note there, and bring a melody home on these notes. The notes that don’t fit into the chord (the 2-3-4-6-7) are often used by stepping stones between the notes of the triad. They can be used for jumps as well, but eventually, you’ll need to resolve back to a triad note (by stepping up or down to it).
  4. Steps versus skips. A voice can move by stepping up and down 8-note guitar scales, or by jumping around. Both are used in the course of an interesting song. Let’s take a look at a Beatles classic, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da.” That phrase in the song utilizes skips (jumps) going up the scale (1-3-5, 1-3-5, 1-3-5-8) and then steps back down to 1 in order to sound finished. The jumps give the chorus some upbeat energy. Another Beatles chorus “Hold your hand” instead is built with almost entirely steps down the scale, creating one big downward movement.

    As you play your background chords, you can hum or sing those three foundational notes to give yourself a framework on what notes “fit” into the chord. Those are not your only choices, but rather the ones you want to “land” on at important spots in the song.
  5. Let’s put it into practice:

    Sample key: C major
    C major contains the following 7 chord choices: CM, dm, em, F, G, am, bdim
    (uppercase for major chords, small case for minor)

    Sample progression for a verse (you’ll most likely want to start and end on C):
    4 chord progression:     C / / /  | F  / / / | am  / / / | G / / / | C / / / |
    Landing notes/triads:    c-e-g   | f-a-c   | a-c-e      | g-b-d | c-e-g. |
  6. Organize your melodies into sections.  Most songs will have a verse, chorus, and possibly pre-chorus or bridge. You will need two good melodies, and possibly three over the course of your song. Both the verse and chorus melody will be used more than once to build the form. The bridge typically provides contrast, either in key, instrumentation, or feel, so for the bridge you’ll want to mix it up and vary from your two opening melodies. For example, if your verse was built on steps in a major chord, then try building your bridge using skips and a minor chord). Even just one good verse and chorus can make a great song.
  7. What about the lyrics? Here are some suggestions for coming up with the words to your song: 
  • Write about what you know and what is important to you. What big emotions and ideas are you thinking about at this time in your life? 
  • Recall events and memories that bring up strong emotions. Write down some thoughts and sensations that come up when you are remembering these memories, no matter whether they are joyful or sad, or angry.
  • Keep a file of phrases, sentences, and fragments of lyrics that come to you. This can be in a paper journal, a document on the cloud, a note-taking app, or even a voice memo. Ideas don’t always come in full stanzas, so it’s ok to have partial ideas. 
  • You don’t have to have the lyrics in mind before you begin to write. You can write a melody before the lyrics, but it is good to have a journal of ideas you can reference when you go to set your melody with words.

A final note: Remember that songwriting is a fluid process. Often, songs start with a kernel of an idea and evolve. Songwriters often go back and adjust melodies or tweak lyrics, add bridges and rework sections. Don’t expect to sit and have a finished song after an hour- very few people write that way (and usually only after a lot of practice). But if you have an idea you’d like to convey in a song, give these steps a try and be willing to revise and revisit your song and see where it leads you.

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