How do you write melody?

Here’s a question we hear a lot.

Q. I have the very frustrating situation that, although I am good with accompaniments, I need help with how to arrive at a melody.

A. Good question. I bet a hundred different songwriters would give you 100 different answers. And then you would have to figure out which one (if any) would work for you. That’s not such a far-fetched proposition. But I’ll get back to that.

Here are some things that work for me. It helps if I’m not starting from absolute zero. What I mean is, if I have no music, no lyrics, no chorus, just a blank piece of paper, that’s the hardest place to start from, IMHO.

If I’m writing music to a set of completed (more or less) lyrics, that’s much easier. It doesn’t matter if I wrote them or someone else did. What I do to find a melody is to follow the rhythms of the syllables. I speak the words out loud to see how they flow. I may add a word here or there to make the flow better. Or I may stretch a word out or
make a section of words staccato. All this without singing a pitch. That usually leads to bits of melody, which lead to more bits which usually build into a complete melody.

Another thing I pay attention to in lyrics when I’m looking for a melody is the meaning or the mood. I want to support whatever mood is created by the words. Simply put, I don’t write a bouncy, happy melody to lyrics that tell a serious or sad story and vice versa. If you really listen to the words for meaning and mood, I believe you’ll hear the melody.

What if you don’t have the lyrics first. Another piece of the puzzle that can help find the melody is the chord progression. Some people, myself included, like to write the chord progression before writing melody. Maybe that’s because melody is hard for me to write, I don’t know.

At any rate, the chords give you a huge head start. You can limit your melody to only using notes in the chord being played at the time. That’s a good place to start. The chords also set a mood, so pay attention to that.

All right, now the toughest question. What do you do when there are no lyrics and no chords, no theme, nothing. One teacher I know suggests walking around. In fact, many writers do their best creative thinking while ambling about in nature. There’s something to this. It has to do with getting your blood flowing to your brain and with breathing more deeply than you would sitting at a desk. It has to do
with inspiration in the outdoors (even in a city) and it has something to do with relaxing, taking the pressure off. I has to do with all those things and probably a lot more. I can’t explain it. It just works.

I hope some of this was helpful. Now back to the 100 songwriters. Since all of the above is just one person’s opinion, wouldn’t it be better to get opinions from a large variety of talented songwriters? There are over 11,000 songwriters registered for the STJ message boards, plus thousands of others who drop in every month. Check it out.

Good luck.

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