I'm attempting to learn how to create finger-style guitar arrangements of songs. In finger-style arrangements it is very important to include melody, I'm just not quite sure how I should compose a melody for a song, especially since I don't have an ear yet and can't pick out notes easily.

I know some music theory: keys, major and minor scales, pentatonic scales, and chord construction. How do you suggest I compose melodies for songs? Obviously I could listen to the song over and over again, looping certain portions and play scales of and related to the key of the song to find these notes, but is there a better way?

I'm new to this and am just curious if anyone has any tricks they use to compose melodies for songs.

4 Answers 4


First of all it takes a while to develop your ear and some pointed practice definitely helps. The short answer is use the tools at your disposal - usually your ear and maybe notation/tablature if you can find it for free/on the cheap.

With that said it is GREAT practice to transcribe the melody by ear (Using looping software ain't cheating in my book but others may disagree - ultimately our opinions don't matter, it's up to you!). There is very useful (free) software called Audacity that allows you to slow down and loop over parts of music - it won't sound great at lower speeds but you can slow it down without changing the pitch and pick out the notes. Do this enough (with progressively more difficult pieces) and you will develop a very good ear.

Now getting back to my earlier note on pointed practice, check out ear training (just google it, there are a million sites out there). If you already know basic theory (major sixth vs minor sixth, basic chord progressions, inversions etc) then all you have to do as take your theoretical knowledge and put some 'sounds' to it. If not, learn a bit so that you have some labels to stick on the different sounds you discover. Music theory isn't necessary but it can be very helpful.

The goal of ear training (at least for me) is so that when I hear something I:

a) know the relationship of notes

b) know how to play the notes relative to each other right off the bat (ideally in real time)

Some sample questions you can ask your self while you study is "What does a sixth sound like and how do I play it?" (I always think of the NBC jingle or the last 3 notes of the standard "Always"). "How about a fourth" (Heeere comes the bride). "A fifth?" (Crazy train - also flat sixth right after it) etc. Find melodies that really showcase a specific melodic jump and figure out what that jump is. Learn jumps up AND down and then learn to play that jump in a bunch of different places on the guitar neck. This will give you a great reference point for what an interval sounds like and how to play it. That way, when you hear one, you can just say "Oh man, that's a jump of a major seventh!".

Also sing along with it! Learn the melody in your voice (even if it's in a funny range) - if you can sing it, you can play it!

For classical guitar, don't be afraid to transpose - especially if it's your first piece! Why would I transcribe Moonlight Sonata in C# when I could transpose it down to A Minor and have some super-easy open bass strings to work with? (I may get attacked on that front so I will mention that I'm a jazz guy first and foremost and I'm treating this as an exercise in developing your ear, not paying proper homage to the great pieces of music, the likes of whichI could never ever ever do justice).

So to recap

1) Use tools at your disposal (namely your ear and sheet music - try it with your ear first and then go to the sheet music if that doesn't work out)

2) If you aren't satisfied with the tools at your disposal, develop your tools! Transcribe anything you can get your hands on from different styles! This Will increase your ear's power exponentially.

3) Learn how to play more melodies ( I didn't mention this before but I'm already a bit long winded here so I'll tack it onto the end)

4) Finally - learn to play the melody in different places on the neck - maybe think positionally at first but be willing to jump around so that you can put some nice voicings underneath.

You don't have to do this all at once (or any of it for that matter). This is just a road map of how I developed my ear! Pleasant playing!


Adding to Ben's great answer. Learn the chord shapes all over the neck. An 'E' shape gives you the tonic on the top string. So does a 'G' shape. A 'C' and 'D' shape give you a third on the top, and an 'A' shape will find the 5th on top. Those notes make up the major chord, which will give some of the main notes for most tunes. Playing them on the top string, while strumming or picking the rest of the chord underneath sounds good, as our ears pick up the highest note more easily. The same idea works with the minor, and seventh shapes (all three).

With a chord, or 2 or 3 notes from it held down and being played, often a ring finger or pinky will be available for any other notes needed in the same bar. Start with pieces which aren't too complex and you'll soon get the way you can change chord shape, to allow the melody to sing out over the accompaniment. Often, you'll only need a couple of notes from a chord to do it. For example, a 3 and a 7 will do . (For a seventh, obviously!)

Whilst this answer sounds like it's addressing the chords, the top note of them will, as said before, feature in most melodies.

  • 1
    Yea, chord shapes are key! So much emphasis is placed on inversions but once you start looking at melodies then the top note is just as important as the bass note. Try playing scales on top with a static chord underneath (changing the voicing of the chord to allow you to move around the neck but keeping the harmony static - don't add/drop any notes from the chord) Commented Aug 25, 2014 at 20:58
  • Another word for this is the CAGED system.
    – user30646
    Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 4:10

There is only one thing you need. I am also a finger-style guitarist, but believe me, those major or minor scales help a little in finger-style guitar arrangement. What you need to practice is to learn how to play `do, re, me...´. If you are good at this, you can write down the melodies of the songs. In addition, try to read tonic solfa guitar notation a little. It'll help.


Here is how I learnt to compose Fingerstyle arrangements.

First, choose a song and find the chords for the song, either work them out yourself or google them. You have to then find the root note of each chord.

Second, get used to playing the melody an your guitar without worrying about other parts

Third, this is the step where you put the bass notes and the melody together. You may have to modify the place where the melody is being played and or where the root notes are played so you can play them both at once.

Fourth, when you have practiced the third step a few times, try to find other positions for the original chords where the melody position closer to it. This is where knowledge of the CAGED system and memorising the notes on the guitar neck is useful.

Fifth, try to add in percussive slaps and taps where it will sound good. This will take heaps of time to develop so don't give up fast.

As a first song to try, play hallelujah from Shreck, this song was my first full song and I was able to get to the third step within a week of practice. It truthfully took years to get better and get to the last step but I eventually did it. I first arranged hallelujah at the time when I had just finished learning open chords and was still quite uncoordinated. The sweat and time was well worth it when I was able to play fongerstyle songs start to finish which were fully arranged by me.

Good luck :)

EDIT: don't worry too much about the scales, all you need to know is a really general knowledge of the scales. What is most important for you is the ability to know if a note in the melody is above, below, or right where you are playing. All you have to know is how to find this note.

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