Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
One of the easiest ways to build a new song is by starting with chords that go together and singing out the notes they are made of. But this is just the start of the melody-building process. Once we get ideas from these chord tones, we can move into notes within the scale or employ chromaticism (i.e., using notes foreign to the mode or diatonic scale).
Here are some steps for using chord tones when writing instrumental or vocal melodies for your songs.
Chord tones and chord progressions
There are a handful of progressions that songs will use over and over, as certain chord sequences give us specific feelings. You can start by picking random chords and putting them together to see what sounds good, or you can use an easier songwriting method of building chord progressions by picking a key and then employing the notes from the scale (this method forms the basis of many beginner guitar lessons).
Some standard progressions include:
|Tonic||Super Tonic||Mediant||Sub-Dominant||Dominant||Sub-Mediant||Leading Tone Sub-Tonic|
The easiest place to start is with simple keys, like C-F (I-IV), G-Cm (I-v), G-C-D (I-IV-V), or Dm-G-C (ii-V-I), and the common C-G-Am-F (I-V-vi-IV). Play a chord progression that suits your playing level and the vibe the progression gives you, then experiment with keys and the chords above. You can start making melodies by playing arpeggios of the chords after you find a progression you like.
Change up the measures you play the chords in and their orders: for example, a G-C-D progression can repeat the G-C before hitting the D and then go back to G. As you play these common progressions, you will likely recognize them from popular songs because so many tunes share them. As you get more comfortable with the chord tones, you can start playing single melody notes.
If you are playing a piano, this is a lot easier as you can keep one hand on a chord while the other plays single notes of the chord. If you are on guitar or another string instrument, you may want to use your voice as the lead — just keep a tuner nearby to know what note you are on!
Pedal tones, or pedal point, comes from organ playing where the player holds a bass note down with their foot. Normally, a bass note is implied, but an inverted pedal means a higher note is played across the chord progression. So, if we played a C-F-G, we would keep that bass C note down the whole time. It keeps the melody you are playing grounded and level with that constant tone.
It’s not just a classical and organ music device, in the song “Free Fallin’,” Tom Petty uses a pedal point, staying on the same bass note for a good portion of the main riff. Heavy metal uses this same technique a lot, as does Van Halen with the song “Jump.” Even thrash metal using dissonant scales still has a bed of I-V power chords underlying for rhythm and heavy overtones, and jazz musicians will often play a V chord over their ii-V-I. Pedal tones are very common.
Passing tones are notes that fall in between the chord notes, ones we are normally passing by a step. If we play a C major chord and then play a D next, that is a passing tone as it still falls in the scale but not within the chord notes. These passing tones can be on or off the beat, accented or unaccented — putting it in between two chords will make it unaccented.
These passing tones can also be called “neighboring” or “anticipating,” depending on whether it leads to a return to the same note or stays the same. The important part is to start adding non-harmonic chord tones into your melody. Keep it simple at first and then you can add more to give the melody a boost.
A suspension is where we suspend the third in the chord formula (1-3-5) and add a 2 or 4, often notated as sus2 and sus4. This is also used in “Free Fallin’,” and Beatles use it in the beginning of “Long and Winding Road.” Suspended chords and notes help provide tension before resolving back to the chord tones again. It can seem like the passing tone movement, but the suspension embellishment is known for being accented and resolving back to the chord.
So far, our melodies have had chord and non-chord notes, but they have all fallen within the range of the scale. If you wish to make folk or simple pop melodies, you can stick with that and write great songs. But you can also take the next step: chromatic and half-step movements. These can be “blue notes,” like b3, b5, and b7 and are a way of adding dissonance to your melody. If you are playing all white keys on a piano, adding chromaticism is simply playing the black keys.
This is what you’ll hear in most jazz, rock, dance, and pop music from the past 100 years. It is common to see hybrid scales and modes that have a major or minor underlying feel and more dissonant note choices for both melody and harmony.
Chord extensions and substitutions
One of the next steps in making melodies from chords is to extend them and even substitute new chords. With this, there is a lot more trial and error to see what will and will not work, but that is also what leads to great discoveries. You may find these changes add to the melody or, in other cases, might add to the backing harmony. Just make sure your melody movement doesn’t have massive jumps and doesn’t distract from the previous notes. Try extending and substituting in your chord progressions from the chart above for new ideas.
There are many ways to embellish the notes of your melodies using both chord tones and non-chord tones. The easiest way to do this is to start playing some common chord progressions and then improvising on their notes. Once you are comfortable with this, you can expand and listen to how new notes sound. You can use strict music theory approaches or just go by ear; the key is to always be on the lookout for a beautiful new melody!
How to find the next chord in the progression when writing a song
The pedal point: A quick study
Use substitution chords to spice up your songs
How to write a great melody
The Dorian mode in the Blues