How to build a melody


We all have a different process for writing songs: lyrics first, music first, a full progression or several pieces assembled later… No matter what the approach, it is important to remember why we started playing an instrument, and although we get lost a little in the maze of equipment, improvisations and endless jams, the objective of the instrument is to create melodies and to transform them into songs!

It starts with a feeling, an idea, a word or a note, and then you have to work this to arrive at a landscape capable of transporting your message and your emotions to music. But how? Here are a few of our tips…

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Improvisation is key when building a melody!

If you have a short melody or phrase in mind, this is advice that has worked for me on a regular basis and allowed me to bring it to something more complex: improvise!  

And what I mean by improvisation is very often creating a loop with the melody in question (either by recording it in your DAW or via a looper) and then playing it over and over! This really allows you to find interesting harmonies and a few chords that would go under the melody. 

It’s an easy way to develop your original idea, make it more complex (or more simple) and generate new ideas that could quickly lead you to see the structure of a song. 

Three different looper pedals

Use Chords & Theory to build a melody

I know that the theory part can sometimes be daunting and you probably want to learn to play songs more than spending hours reading about secondary dominants or the circle of fifths.

But you have reached a point in your composition where a little theory represents a phenomenal leap forward! If you have a sequence of 3 chords and completely block out how you are going to solve or continue the progression, a good way to move forward is to take a look at what you have, and to determine in which key and mode you are. 

We can conclude with a practical example: You have found the sequence C Major, A minor and D minor (I, VI, II), you can fairly easily determine that you are in the key of C and that a possible resolution is G Major (V).

It is not the most rock’n’roll way to do it, but it is a great way to advance your ideas and develop what started as 3 random chords for a verse part. 

Don’t get stuck on one rhythm or tempo!

You have your 4 chords, it’s a verse, we are progressing! Now we arrive at a stage where we will have to think about the message of the song, what emotions you want to convey. Is it a cry of anger, a declaration of love, a reaction to the world around you? 

These subjects, beyond being the source of potential lyrics, will greatly influence the WAY in which you play your 4 chords! Experiment, play your chords at different tempos, at different intensities and within different structures

Everyone has heard the chords E, G, D and A one behind the other in 4/4 hundreds of times in hundreds of songs. But put these same chords in 7/8 and it immediately becomes another universe! 

Try experimenting to find a melody

You have advanced enormously and now have several melodies and harmonies, a tempo and a structure. The next big hurdle will be the organisation of these ideas. 

This initial idea that you had, these 3 notes, why not try them as a bridge or even a chorus? If you have managed to organise the structure of your new song, do not always persist in trying to make this or that melody work within it. If it does not flow naturally modify it, or use the original idea as a chorus but over different chords. Because as we all know , the initial ideas always have some sort of inexplicable magic about them…

Sort through your different parts, and experiment! Put one in a verse, the other as a pre-chorus or transition… it may not lead to any concrete changes but, in any case, doing so will push you to question each melody and question its qualities in the context of a song. Remember to use feeling as a decisive factor, always before thought

Choose the right instrument… and the right key!

Ok you’re almost there! The song is there. Now is the time to concretise all this work and arrange the music!

This means determining which melody will be sung, which melody will be played and on which instrument. This is not always easy and once again it means keeping an open mind to last minute changes! Whether in a group, orchestra or even just with the virtual instruments of your DAW, it is quite possible that this harmony which sounded good on guitar will sound absolutely incredible on violin!

And this also means that if brass instruments are required to make a certain part explode, then by all means, go for it! Don’t cut corners

If the rhythm is too intense or too slow to work with a saxophone, which would make the song a thousand times better, make some changes. Or if the range of your voice doesn’t fit with the key, shift it one or two steps lower or higher to make it work. 

And bang! It’s a song


Before we finishing this article, keep in mind that the points mentioned above are only advice and do not constitute a magic recipe for releasing an album per week! If only… 

But if you encounter problems while composing, or tend to get stumped when someone asks you to play an original song from start to finish we hope these tips will help you move forward and add confidence to your composing 😀

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Joe has been singing since he can remember and started playing guitar when he was 10. He's been using it as a songwriting tool ever since. He is passionate about melody and harmony and admires musicians who create these in unique ways. Check out his alternative / indie projects Best of Feelings and Zef Raček.

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