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Chords or melody first? - Paul Battersby - 02-18-2022

Here's another question for everyone, just because I'm curious. When composing from an empty project, do you start with a chord progression or do you star with a melody (or both at the same time)?

For me, I quickly realized that I have to create a melody first. Any time I start with a chord progression, that chord progression is inevitably repetitive, unimaginative or sounds random and leads to an uninspiring melody.

If I start with a melody, the melody is free to wander wherever my imagination takes it and the chord progression is dictated by the melody. For me, this results in a more interesting chord progression that I would never have dreamed up otherwise.

RE: Chords or melody first? - Mattias Westlund - 02-19-2022

Melody first, for sure. There's nothing I love more than establishing a leitmotif with a particular chord progression, then throwing the listener off completely by using the same melody with different chords accompanying it. John Williams does this all the time in the various Star Wars scores and it's amazing. A bold, heroic theme can be turned into something sad or even menacing, just by changing a few notes around.

RE: Chords or melody first? - Mattias Westlund - 02-19-2022

...then again, for non-thematic type of music, I like working with SOUND in general. An evolving synth pad or just a looped bit of noise can spark a whole musical idea for me. But that's not chords technically speaking.

RE: Chords or melody first? - Nayrb - 02-19-2022

Yeah, some of the best advice I ever got was from a friend of mine who is an exceptional musician, who told me to write the melody first and then work out the chords. I didn't understand harmony fully at the time (just the basics of triads, inversions, suspensions), but doing so kind of caused me to develop my ear for chords underneath the melody, because I guess I always had a reasonable ear for consonance and popular cadences. Some of my music from 2005-06 shows some of the things I was learning about harmony while briefly a music student, but I forgot a lot of that immediately, and it's only been in the last year or so that I've once again returned to harmony as a serious study. Some of my new ideas ARE driven by harmony, because I've been studying theory on my own again. What I've found, though, is that (at least right now) my ideas are all blocky--there's very little organic flow, because I'm worried too much about voice leading and such. But that's just me at my present level of knowledge and skill. I like the idea of being able to compose abstractly and give a voice to each part, but I'm no expert there. I HAVE started to be more conscious about the melody as part of the harmony, if that makes sense. Like, if the melody occupies this part of the chord(s), what do I need to fill in?

Honestly, though, when I really think about my "process" (I don't really have one), like Mattias, I just work with sound. A certain synth patch will just sound better played as chords, another as a melody. Once something is happening in my ears, I can start to hear how it might be developed. For a guy who doesn't work on his music enough, I sure have a lot of approaches to shift between Big Grin

RE: Chords or melody first? - Samulis - 02-19-2022

Good question! It depends for me.

In some cases I start with a 'ground', i.e. some kind of bass line that repeats, then build up. I do this most often when improvising the lines, as then I have a solid basis on which to develop harmonic ideas. This is usually a really quick way of writing which is useful if there's some kind of deadline, but as mentioned earlier, sometimes I find the result can get too repetitive if not careful to mix things up.

When composing though with step entry or drawing in notes, I often start with melody instead. I find this tends to make me write very polyphonic music with a lot of attention to voice leading and often goes more interesting places harmonically than it otherwise would.

In other cases, I end up starting with some kind of rhythmic motif, such as a pizzicato or spiccato thing, and build the piece around that. This is usually the result of goofing around on the keyboard for a bit, and then something I don't hate will come to me eventually.