The vocal melody is one of the TWO most important parts of any song (lyric being the other). Lyric and melody make a song. You’ll rarely hear someone walking down the street humming chord changes, or whistling a guitar riff (unless maybe they’re a musician). The general population is attracted to the primary vocal melody, and if they don’t like it, then they don’t like your song. If they can’t remember it, then they won’t sing your song.
Songs can generally be grouped into a couple of categories – songs written around a melody and songs written around chord changes or riffs. As a music publisher, I’ve seen the majority of songwriters in my genre begin with chord changes rather than with a melody. In contrast however, most of today’s successful pop writers, start with a melody. Both processes can work. However, if the vocal melody is one of the most important parts of your song, be extremely careful not to make it an afterthought.
Building your song around a chord progression can be severely limiting. Amateur writers often use only the chords they know best … the ones their hands automatically go to when they pick up the guitar or sit at the piano. They hang out and jam on some chord changes until they get something they really like. Then they try to impose melody on top of the progression.
We can get very creative with the way we string our favorite chords together, and how long we stay on each chord, leading to hundreds of chord progressions for new songs. However, laying down the progression first, boxes us in when it comes to creating melody. It locks us in with regard to both the rhythm and the notes we can use in our melody. And we may also limit ourselves with the way our phrasing and our pattern of repetition can work.
Try starting with a melody. Work on building it without your instrument, if necessary. Develop something enjoyable, beautiful and singable. Then let the melody determine the rhythm and the mood and the chords that will support it. This change of process sounds simple enough, but is extremely liberating for most writers. When there are no more walls, no more limits, no more boxes, they find that their melodies truly begin to soar. Their songs become more singable, more memorable and more enjoyable.