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Most people I encounter seem to have the opinion that the definitive way is to first have the chords and then "mess around" with the harmony notes until one founds a desirable succession of notes, i.e., "melody".

On the other hand, I usually already have some melody in my head and so I try to find acceptable harmonization for it. However, others usually put me down for it and insist on the aforementioned method (chord first).

Is looking for the chord after having the melody that weird unusual? I thought it's natural as a lot of people do it anyway with existing music and it's even tested in music theory examinations.

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I changed the wording from "weird" to "unusual" to make it clear that I personally find it as nothing weird. –  RichN Sep 18 '11 at 17:06
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7 Answers

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think "hearing" a melody first and then working out a suitable chord structure is the method used by large numbers of songwriters.

There is no "rule book" for these things. Some very famous writers work up the music first and then find lyrics, some write the lyrics entirely and then work up an accompaniment.

Same for instrumental pieces.

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This question ended up looking more like a discussion than a question as there is probably no correct answer. I accepted this one anyway based on the vote. –  RichN Sep 26 '11 at 9:15
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For me:

  • when i start with chords - this is for me a safe ground. I make up some nice progression, and there is easier to me to come up with suitable melody. (Although this method yields mild or balanced melodies sometimes)
  • when i start with melody - i often have a hard time to harmonize it, and searching for the right chords is more painful to get it right

Yet, i think my compositions with "melody first approach" seems to be more interesting, fresh, and awarding.

I don't really care what people will say about my method, or if they want to put me down. This is my music (as a processes and as a last product/effect)

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I think your answers clarify the issues that I actually have: chords first and then melody is, just like you said, easier but often I'm personally not satisfied with the result. Melody first is what I actually want to do, but because it's hard, I tried to find some help from books, the internet, and finally, teachers. And thus, the issue started. If I could do things the way I want, then I don't care about other's opinion. Sadly, it's not the case. –  RichN Sep 26 '11 at 9:25
Really i'm not always able to achieve results i want. I have some beautiful melodies, which have yet to white to harmonization, mainly because i failed to this at previous attempts. But i don't let my self to be put down by someone because i failed on this. I wish You good luck. And Remember there is never another musician like You out there, and that's is what matters, even if You're not able on all times achieve what You crave too. Again i wish You Good Luck and enjoyment from Your music :) –  Hubert Czerski Sep 26 '11 at 11:27
Thank you for your encouragement, but let me assure that I am not letting myself be put down, just that I'm lost as I don't know where else to go. –  RichN Sep 27 '11 at 14:29
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I agree with others, I don't think it's unusual.

It may seem this way if most people you talk to, as you say, think it is. But: in a comment you say that it's "teachers" saying this. Maybe there's the rub: teachers (mostly) would have a degree in music, wouldn't they? And the academic music "establishment" (for want of a better word) seems (from my experience with people who got taught this stuff instead of mostly learning on their own) to be focused on a rather brainy approach.

Long rant shortened: academically, you start with "structure", with "think about what you build", and then fill in the details (melody being just a detail); you start with theory. While you want/tend to start with a... feeling? An intuition? And then construct the framework around and under it. Practice -> theory. While teachers are "indoctrinated" to do theory -> practice. You can replace theory with brain and practice with heart. Same thing.

I always think of a famous quote: "I play what I feel like playing. May other people think and analyze what exactly it is I'm playing, if that's what they enjoy. I don't care". Heavily paraphrased from a famous blues-man that I can't remember right now.

(Personal anecdote of being the only person w/o a theoretical background in music in a band of theory-minded people elided... ;-))

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Well FYI, I did say "teachers" in the sense that they teach music, but their qualifications varies, some don't have any degree in music. –  RichN Sep 21 '11 at 12:13
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I don't for the life of me understand why people are putting you down for starting from a melody when writing music. I think music can get created in any number of ways, and that the best music comes from genuine "flashes of inspiration". If the method that works for you is to first imagine the melody, then stick with it!

By the way, melody -> scale -> chords would probably be the way to go.

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That's something I also don't understand. Whenever I asked a teacher for opinion, he would throw away whatever it was that I had and then force that method. –  RichN Sep 20 '11 at 4:40
@RichN: if a teacher does that, throw the teacher away. If you don't find one that accepts your process, then... well, better no teacher than to have your creativity damaged or even destroyed. That some is or calls themselves teacher doesn't impart infallability... –  Jürgen A. Erhard Sep 21 '11 at 10:16
You mean the method melody -> scale -> chords? I definitely didn't mean that to be set in stone, just that that is probably the "textbook" method. As Jürgen says, don't let anything/anyone stifle your creativity! Wise people point out that music is about learning the rules and then breaking them :). –  andreasdr Sep 22 '11 at 7:24
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Is it possible that you are not doing what you think you are doing and that really you do have chords in mind when you hear the melody, but only subconsciously?

So my guess is yes, it is probably unusual.

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Some times, but not always. –  RichN Sep 20 '11 at 4:40
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Sometimes it is easier to have a chord sequence and then work a melody around that, but very often it is the melody which you can create first and then work out which chords would fit that melody.

The thing about music that makes it fascinating to me is that there is no "must do" method of composing or playing. What works for you at the time is the right way to do it.

For me, I almost always write the melody line first, as I often write them in my head will running or at the gym, or driving. Once I have transcribed or recorded them I then work out what might fit, sometimes amending the melody line if I find a 'better' sound in the process.

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Historically, there were famous examples of "looking for the chord after having the melody" too. J. S. Bach harmonized hundreds of chorale which existed before him and you can get some of Bach's chorale settings here (according to wikipedia, "A chorale was originally a hymn sung by a Christian congregation. ... Chorales were at first monophonic tunes (melody only). ... ).

So, no I don't think of 'looking for chord after having the melody' as weird at all.

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