How to Write Vocal Melodies Over Chords

Without question, the most important but challenging aspect of songwriting is coming up with a great vocal melody. Think of any of your favorite songs and I’d be willing to bet it’s the vocal melody that first comes to mind.

There are countless articles, and books that have been written on the finer details of rhythm and harmony but information on writing melodies is difficult to find, which is a shame considering how important vocal melodies are to the art of songwriting.

With this in mind, today I’m going to share some ideas I’ve picked up over the years that have helped me write vocal melodies over existing chord progressions. I’ll also explain some of the technical aspects of melody writing.

But if you are in a hurry and just looking for a few suggestions, try the list below:

  • Brainstorm vocal melodies while playing guitar, or looping the progression in your DAW (while simple, this is often the most productive)
  • Write down the chord tones for each of the chords in your chord progression and compose a melody from these over the chord progression, focusing on using stepwise motion
  • Draw a visual representation of a vocal melody using MIDI. Listen back, and remove notes as needed, or try experimenting with altering the basic pattern e.g. reversing the entire sequence of notes
  • Try incorporating falsetto to increase vocal range and note selection
  • Write melodies on the guitar following scales, taking into account the limitations of the human voice e.g. range and breath control
  • Write melodies on an unfamiliar instrument to get out of your comfort zone
  • Use a melody generator (either standalone or plugin for your DAW)

For a more detailed explanation continue reading.

The Hardest Thing About Writing a Song

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have written a lot of songs for various projects I’ve been involved in. I’ll leave others to decide whether those songs are any good, but the point is I’ve been able to say ‘done’ and move on with each completed song.

This can be a difficult thing to do.

When a song is ‘done’, it’s finished, complete. And, the next stage is to then play it to people and get feedback. Being a genuine showcase of your abilities, naturally, this can lead to endless procrastination leaving the song never quite getting finished.

But….finishing a song is important. It allows you to write the next one.

And you have to keep writing songs to get better. So many musicians have chord progressions, and half-completed songs that might have potential but are never ‘done’ because the song doesn’t have a vocal melody.

Even if you have no intention of singing yourself, if you hope to write songs (other than instrumentals), you must be able to write melodies and communicate your ideas to a vocalist.

Do You Write The Chords or Melody First?

In this article, we’re focusing on writing melodies over previously written chord progressions e.g. finishing those half-written songs we all have.

But the order you write music is not important.

There’s no set process for writing melodies. Inspiration for a song can come from anywhere and in any order.

If you are guitar-orientated you probably write the music first. But if you’re anything like me, when the guitar is not in your hands it’s more likely you will come up with a melodic idea first and then develop the chord progression and song structure later.

That’s not to say having a set process doesn’t work.

For those who find there’s nothing more daunting than a blank canvas, a songwriting process honed over many years provides much-needed structure. But this approach tends to inhibit those who believe there’s nothing more exciting than a blank canvas.

What Is a melody?

A melody is simply a sequence of notes much like a scale, except scales are notes arranged in ascending or descending order.

Unlike harmony where the notes are played simultaneously e.g. a guitar chord, a melody is linear.

Vocal melody shown in midi

If we look at a midi region in our DAW we can visualize the melody characterized by the number of notes used, each note’s duration, and of course the pitch of each note.

We can also see a pattern through the use of repetition and the rise and fall of notes.

What makes a great melody?

Great melodies are usually:

  • Simple and accessible
  • Use the right amount of repetition
  • Have a unique and/or interesting element

While purely subjective, I believe a great vocal melody is simple enough to be sung along with, but interesting enough to be memorable e.g. demand repeat listens.

No easy task.

Think of the nursery rhymes you learned as a child.

While simple in terms of structure, and easy to remember due to the use of repetition. The melodies often build tension centered around the story being told in the lyrics, giving the vocal melody to Three Blind Mice for example a unique feel.

A more current example of this might be the album ‘Nevermind‘ by Nirvana. Once described as a collection of savage nursery rhymes due to the simplicity of the songs.

Does it Help to Understand Music Theory When Writing Melodies?

Do you need to learn music theory?

Music theory is a powerful tool for analyzing and developing a deeper understanding of music, but it’s not essential for coming up with great melodies.

The most successful songwriters including McCartney, and Dylan don’t use music theory…..well at least not consciously.

I’m sure Kurt Cobain (who also didn’t read music) was unaware that the melody for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was built on extended scale degrees e.g. 9ths, 11ths of the underlying chords. He did it instinctively, due to his carefully honed musical instincts developed through years of writing, performing, and listening to music, rather than studying the technical side of it.

In my experience, theory can quickly become second nature, and expand your musical options, especially if stuck for ideas, or refining and developing an idea, but it’s not essential.

Melodic Function

Keys

Much like a painter has a full spectrum of colors available, songwriters also have a musical palette available, referred to as the musical key. From here we can see the notes we have available e.g. the notes that sound good, and work with the chord progression.

In truth, if a note sounds good in context it is good. We’re not restricted to notes only within specific keys. But for the most part, the notes used in your melodies will consist of notes taken from the key of the chord progression you are writing over.

The key of C

Tonic234567
CDEFGAB

All of the notes within a key that we can select from to create a melody have a function based on their level of stability, determined by their relationship to the tonic note e.g. the first note in the key.

This means the expression of a note within a melody is determined by its key. You can’t describe the note C as sounding ‘happy’ for example, it depends on its relationship to the tonic note.

For example in the key of C, C is the root. It’s the home note that provides the most stability. However, in the key of F, C is the 5th note (5th scale degree) referred to as the ‘dominant’ and has a different role.

Melodic Motion

In the table below we can see that the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of any key are the most stable. These are referred to as chord tones.

When the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes are played together, the notes form a triad (3-note chord). While scale degrees 2 and 4 are less stable than 1, 3, and 5, scale degree 6 is less stable again, while 7 is highly unstable.

Scale Degree1234567
FunctionTonicSuperTonicMediantSubdominantDominantSubmediantLeading Tone
Highly
Stable
UnstableModerately
Stable
UnstableStableQuite
Unstable
Highly
Unstable

Stable notes feel resolved e.g. they don’t pull us as strongly toward notes within the key. While unstable notes pull toward the next lowest stable note e.g. 2 usually resolves to 1, 4 resolves to 3, and 6 to 5.

This movement resolves the tension introduced and is pleasing to the ear. The more unstable a note is, the more it pulls toward the more stable notes within a key to resolve.

For example, the 7th scale degree, or leading tone (due to its expectation to resolve to the tonic) is the least stable note in any key and therefore provides a strong sense of resolution when resolved to the tonic, providing a sense of completion to the end a melodic phrase.

This is how ‘motion’ is created through melody. Clever songwriters and topliners make use of tension and resolution either intrinsically or by understanding the theory behind the note’s function.

Rules are Made to Be Broken

None of this is to say that unstable notes must always resolve to stable notes (closed tones) just that they provide a sense of anticipation of doing so.

This is where the more interesting parts of a melody are created e.g. completing a vocal phrase on an unstable note (open tone) can be used to add tension, potentially adding an emotional connection to the lyrics of the song.

While similar, the concept of consonance and dissonance is mostly used to describe chords and more accurately describes a lack of harmonic agreement amongst the notes that form the chord. For example, 7th chords contain the leading tone, (7th scale degree), giving that unique ‘bluesy’ feel to 7th chords due to the combination of major and minor intervals.

Conjunct and Disjunct Motion

There are two ways to describe ‘motion’ in terms of melody.

Stepwise motion (also referred to as conjunct motion) and disjunct motion which is also referred to as a leap.

Stepwise motion refers to the melody moving in increments of one scale degree. So at the most two semitones between notes. Many great melodies consist primarily of stepwise motion and use disjunct motion (intervals larger than a 2nd) selectively to add contrast.

Going back to an earlier point. Great melodies combine simplicity (stepwise motion) along with more dramatic intervals (leaps) which serve to add interest to a melody, making the melody more memorable.

Melody has Rhythm

Ideally, all parts of a song e.g the harmonic elements, rhythm, and melody all push in the same direction to form something greater than the sum of its parts.

Subsequently, rhythm plays an important role in defining a melody. Through the use of rhythm, we control note duration, and timing and can accent specific notes and introduce elements such as anticipation and syncopation, along with swing.

If you are writing a vocal melody, try playing around with these elements within the chord progression you have written. This can often open up new directions you may not have considered earlier.

Writing for Vocalists

Now that we’ve discussed some of the building blocks songwriters consciously or subconsciously use to craft great vocal melodies, before we dive into some practical tips, keep in mind if you are not a singer that there’s a difference between writing melodies for guitar and writing for the human voice.

Melodies that are sung have obvious limitations compared to instrumental music e.g. vocalists are limited by range and of course the necessity to breathe. If not a singer yourself, and writing for a vocalist you’ll need to consider their range and play on their strengths and weaknesses.

How to Come Up with Great Melodies Over Chords on Guitar

Below are some ideas I have used over the years to write vocal melodies over chord progressions. While much of the information above might seem impractical at first, we’ll soon see many of the concepts will be referenced in the sections below.

Brainstorming Ideas: Be Comfortable With Sounding Bad

Woman brainstorming vocal ideas over chords

While it sounds simple. The most effective way I’ve found for coming up with vocal melodies over existing chords is to get myself into a relaxed state and simply play the chord progression on guitar while brainstorming vocal ideas.

While the concept itself is simple to explain, the key is to be open to trying just about anything, and that’s not easy to do well, or confidently.

In fact, it can be surprisingly draining and generally takes a lot of perseverance, especially over a difficult chord progression. With this in mind, below are a few additional tips I have found that can help:

  • Soundproofing
    When improvising some of the ideas you come up with are going to sound bad. That’s fine, it’s merely part of the process. But if you are subconscious about being heard consider makeshift soundproofing. Alternatively, you can also try recording the chords and then brainstorming ideas when out driving (I once took on a job delivering pizzas for this very reason). The point is, if you feel overly subconscious about the process it will affect your ability to come up with ideas.
  • Always hit record
    I almost always record when freestyling ideas over existing chords. I usually, give myself a set time limit e.g. 6 minutes, and then go back and listen for any ideas that have potential. While it’s another technical step being put in the way of writing, it sure beats forgetting an awesome melody idea.
  • Experiment with rhythm
    Sometimes when writing, it can feel like everything you are doing sounds the same. If this occurs, try thinking rhythmically first. Thom Yorke (Radiohead) a phenomenal songwriter once famously stated “Melody is dead, long live rhythm”.
    Rhythm is an important component of melody, and sometimes by changing the tempo, or feel of the underlying music, we can explore new directions, just as Radiohead did when writing the music for their fourth studio album Kid A.
  • Experiment with different chord voicings
    Try experimenting with chord inversions (the lowest note is no longer the root) or using different voicings. Much like the example above, this allows you to hear the chord progression differently e.g. different notes of the underlying chords are more prominent and this may inspire new ideas.
  • Use a Capo
    Changing the underlying key of the song can be another great way to break out of a rut. Using a capo is the simplest way to go about this.
  • Experiment with your vocal delivery
    Try using a different voice to the one you normally use e.g. if you predominantly write using your chest voice, try using falsetto or mixed voice. Another option that may work here is to visualize yourself as another performer. This is a tip from Paul McCartney, who was asking himself what would Ray Charles do here when writing “The Long and Winding Road“.

One last thing. Don’t settle for anything less than a melodic idea that genuinely has you excited to develop further. Like I said earlier, it’s not easy but it shouldn’t cause anxiety either. If it’s just not happening, it might be time to try a different approach.

Focus on Using Chord Tones

As we discussed above, the most stable notes within a key are the 1 (root), 3, and 5. These notes are referred to as chord tones and finding ways to connect them can be a great way to improvise a vocal melody.

The easiest way to do this is to simply write out your chord progression and then write the notes of each chord below. Then (unless you have perfect pitch) reference the notes on your guitar so you can sing the correct notes and experiment with different sequences of notes.

Almost everything you do here will sound safe and deliberate, but if you only used chord tones in your melodies, your melodies are also likely to sound dull.

Using notes from outside the chord (nonchord-tones) is the most effective way to add some flavor, but keep in mind that tones that are less harmonically agreeable with the notes of the underlying chord should be used selectively. For example, passing notes that bridge a gap between two or more stable notes.

Also keep in mind the concept of stepwise motion, which we covered earlier. With this in mind, the most logical place to start when changing chords is to look for the next highest or lowest scale degree which can be taken from the next chord in the progression.

Chord Tones taken from underlying chords
If you don’t know basic chord theory, you can read more here or simply Google “what are the notes in a …. chord?”

For example, in the image above we have a chord progression consisting of the chords: Cmin, Eb, Bb, and F. We can see several opportunities to use stepwise motion between notes, for example moving between C and B flat for our first two chords.

If we begin our melody on E flat (taken from C minor) when the chord changes to E flat we can try using the D as the next stable note in the melody, an example of conjunct motion as the notes are only a semitone apart.

Use Midi

Midi Pattern

An idea I’ve used in the past when a chord progression is particularly difficult to write over is to simply draw/paint a melody into a midi region. So, rather than using your ears, visualize it instead.

In the past, I’ve found Fruityloops a particularly good DAW for this purpose, as it makes drawing Midi on a timeline particularly easy. However, nowadays I use Logic Pro which has a bunch of great features specific for writing melodies.

For example, the scale quantize feature restricts the notes you draw to a scale you nominate e.g. harmonic minor within the key you have chosen for the songs. There are also a number of random melody generator plugins that use AI to come up with melody ideas.

If you prefer to simply draw in midi notes It’s going to help if you have a basic understanding of keys and the notes within them, but the real magic is often found after several edits, much like a sculpture carves the excess stone away to create a statue.

For example, based on the notes within the key, you can enter a linear line of notes and then listen back, and remove the notes that don’t sound good.

From there you can try a few different options e.g. reversing the sequence of notes, removing every second note, or changing the duration of every third note. The primary purpose of this exercise is to think in terms of patterns.

Writing Melodic Ideas on the Guitar Using Scales

C Major Scale - G Shape - Caged Scales

Guitarists use scales to create guitar solos, which are another example of melody writing.

I’m generally reluctant to explore melodic ideas on the guitar unless I’m really stuck. While this can work, I’ve often found melodies that sound great on guitar usually don’t transfer to the human voice well.

Ever tried singing a guitar solo?

Although similar to using chord tones, you can use any note from the key you are writing in (and indeed, notes from outside the key selectively). In most cases, the Major and minor scales will be the most useful, but you can also experiment with different scales e.g. harmonic minor, or modes of the Major scale e.g. Phrygian or Dorian.

As discussed above, it’s important to remember you are writing for a human voice, and your melody ideas must work with the range of the singer and allow rest periods between phrases for breathing. Often this means simplifying things compared to that of a guitar solo.

I’d also recommend recording your work so you are free to experiment without the burden of trying to remember the ideas you come up with.

Write on a Different Instrument

As guitarists, we tend to have our favorite licks, chord voicings, and subsequent strengths and weaknesses to play on and this can lead to a sense of familiarity, and predictability about most of the things we play.

Whole Steps-half Steps Piano Keyboard

One way to get around this is to play a different instrument e.g. piano. Because you are now less familiar with the layout (assuming you are), you will be forced out of your comfort zone, which can lead to interesting ideas and terrible-sounding ones 🙂

Bonus points if you have a midi keyboard and can then play around with the notes within your DAW. I use just a basic Korg Micro Key (it only has 25 keys). Its real value is how portable and quick and easy it is to get up and running.

The point here is to explore ideas.

Think about it, if you are familiar with a location, you are hardly going to explore it and discover new things, you already know it.

Use a Melody Generator

Chord / Melody Generator

This is usually the last option I will use, but can also be fun to play around with. Melody generators use AI to generate random melodies, with some allowing you to enter your own chords.

This is the best one I have found. But there are numerous others offering different levels of complexity and functionality.

It’s easy to lose a couple of hours trying to mine great melody ideas with these kinds of tools. But for all the great ideas you could potentially discover be prepared to scroll through hundreds of ideas that don’t work.

When Inspiration Strikes

Often when I sit down and try to write music nowadays, I leave empty-handed.
I’ve often put down the guitar and called it a night, only to find myself stumbling back out 30 minutes later because something came to me subconsciously, it happens all the time.

Other times I’ll be driving, concentrating on the road but have a chord progression playing in the background and without even realizing begin humming a melody.

The point is, that you won’t always be successful when attempting to write, but you need to be capable of harvesting the fruits of your subconscious, by having a way to record ideas.

The recording app on my phone is perhaps the greatest songwriting tool at my disposal for this reason. I’ve written more about recording demos on smartphone here.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, there are many ways to think about and approach writing vocal melodies. I tend to look at the process as hierarchical e.g. if the simplest option doesn’t work, move on to the next, and so on. But we all have different preferences, and subsequently different starting points.

For some working with Midi might be a great option, for others writing on anything other than an acoustic guitar is sacrilege. Unlike many things in life, when writing melodies, the journey is far less important than the destination, so do what works for you.

Marty

Photo of author
My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.