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Solving the Problems of Chords-First Songwriting

Original article from: http://www.secretsofsongwriting.com/2016/11/07/solving-the-problems-of-chords-first-songwriting/

Chords-first songwriting is a bit of a modern invention. For the great master composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.), composing was almost always about the melody, and so the process of writing music would start there.

That’s not to say that composing music was strictly a melody-first process for them after which they’d come up with chords to accompany those tunes. In fact, melody and chords were almost always worked out simultaneously. They’d never even think of a melody without thinking of the chords that would (or at least could) accompany it.


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So where did chords-first songwriting come from? It stemmed from:

  1. the importance of developing a rhythmic feel for a song. It’s hard to write songs if you don’t have an idea what the basic groove is going to be, and developing chords is important — perhaps even necessary — when experimenting with and developing that groove;
  2. the importance of developing a mood for the song. Every songwriter knows that choosing the right chord has everything to do with the basic temperament of the music.

I’ve often written on this blog about my preference for melody-first writing, simply because melody is what people hum and remember. But since a good melody is practically always going to imply chords through its shape, a melody-first process really is a melody-and-chords-first process.

But there is something to be said for working out chords first, even if you don’t know what your melody is going to be, because of that notion that the feel and mood of a song is so vital.

The main pitfall to working out chords first is that melody can get ignored, and you might wind up with a song that has a weak melody that’s hard to remember and that doesn’t partner well with lyrics.

So how do you avoid the common pitfalls of chords-first writing? Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Switch focus to melody early in the process. In other words, get a chord progression working, but don’t dwell on that part of the process. Get something working, and then switch your focus to developing a good, easy-to-sing, contoured melody, something that your fans will be able to hum and remember.
  2. Rework your chord progression only when you’ve got a good working melody. Let the ups and downs of that melody help guide you when trying to edit your chord progression.
  3. Let the mood of the lyric help dictate the mood of the chords. We know that chords can easily express an overall mood. But that mood has to partner with the mood being created by the lyric. If you’ve started with at least some of the lyric in place, use that as a way of helping you choose chords, and then crafting a melody that uses the natural pulses of the lyric.
  4. Let the rhythmic groove you develop for the chords work with the innate rhythm of the lyrics. The rhythm of these two elements needs to partner well.
  5. Remember that a good chord progression is rarely enough to stand on its own. A good chord progression is only a starting point, and more problems come from dwelling too long on chords in the larger scheme of songwriting. Always think of chords as a support for other important elements, not as a point of focus themselves.

More weaknesses can come from starting a song with chords, but as long as you know and understand the possible pitfalls, you can write great music with a chords-first process.

The important part is keeping in mind that while chords lay down an important mood, and play a vital role in establishing the rhythmic feel for the song, it’s melodies and lyrics that become the important elements that people will hum.


Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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