As someone who writes music for a living, its my job to maintain a constant creative mindset. The way I personally like to go about this is to write a single melody on guitar first thing each morning.
I love this because it instantly gives me a feeling of accomplishment as well as a sense of what’s possible. The idea isn’t finished so in my mind, it’s pure potential which immediately puts me in a good mood and sets the tone for the rest of the day.
In today’s article, I’m going to share with you my perspective on how to write a catchy melody in six simple steps. Let’s get started.
About the author
Before we get into the steps, I want to lay out the bare essentials of what you’ll need to start writing melodies. You will need:
- your instrument of choice (for the purposes of this article, I’m going to use guitar),
- recording device (phone, handheld recorder, DAW),
When the topic of songwriting comes up, a lot of people will say “You need to find inspiration to get started” which to me, is really not that helpful seeing as inspiration is regarded as this mysterious, ethereal thing (and it is!) but there are ways to cultivate inspiration by taking action.
Here are some steps you can take to kick start the creative process. This isn’t the only way! It’s just a way. I hope it helps!
Here’s how to write a melody in 6 steps:
- Choose a key and scale
- Choose a mood
- Choose rhythm
- Choose a tempo
- Pick up to 4 chords
- Pick up to 4 notes
Step 1: Choose a key and corresponding scale
Deciding on a parent key is hugely important when starting out because there are a set of rules baked into each key signature. This is actually a good thing! We don’t want to be overwhelmed by too many options and we need to exercise our decision making muscles.
Is your melody going to be in a Major key? A minor key? Are you going to bust out the pentatonic scale or use a church mode? Maybe you’re into exotic scales (like me) and you want to use the scale pattern itself as a creative limitation.
There’s no wrong answer here. Choose whatever sounds good to you. Once you choose a key signature, write it down, spell out the scale and all of the chords associated with the key.
I will keep things very simple and choose the key of C Major.
Scale = C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
Chords = C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G7, A minor, B minor 7 b5
It’s important to note that at this stage of the process, the end result should be the least of your concern. We only care about getting our reps in and having fun with the process.
Step 2: Choose a mood
How do you want the melody to sound? Happy? Sad? Whimsical? Maybe you’ve never consciously thought about this before when sitting down to write but deciding on how you want the music to make you feel will help you zero in what notes and corresponding chords to use. Not only that but the mood you decide on can even dictate how fast or slow your motif will be.
For example, I’ve written many a song celebrating wedding proposals and anniversaries in my day, and I’ve learned over time that most clients are looking for something slower in tempo that toes the line between moods that are happy and romantic to more reflective.
Because of this, it wouldn’t make sense to have music that features all minor chords, so having an idea of the mood you’re trying to convey musically can be a powerful North Star.
I’m going to decide on a happy mood.
Step 3: Choose rhythm
What are melodies made of anyway? Notes right? While that is undoubtedly true, that’s only the half of it. My eyes were opened when I heard someone break melody down into two parts.
Now without getting too into the weeds regarding phrasing and note duration, let’s keep it simple for now and choose a meter (rhythm) that we can easily write our melody to.
Unless you’re trying to reinvent the Mission Impossible theme, it’s probably for the best to choose an even-numbered meter like 4/4 or 6/8 to start out, but that’s only a suggestion. If odd time signatures are your bag, go nuts!
Once you find something that you’re comfortable with, write it down. I’m going to go with everybody’s favorite, 4/4 time.
Step 4: Choose a tempo
Let’s choose a consistent tempo that we can write our melody to. Once you find something that you’re able to play along to without feeling too rushed (or feeling like it’s dragging too slowly for that matter) write it down.
I’m going to go with 120 BPM (beats per minute) since the mood of the song is happy and that generally lends itself to a more upbeat tempo.
Step 5: Pick up to 4 chords
Now go back and revisit all the chords in your chosen key signature and choose up to four chords to get started. Notice how I said “up to” four chords. It doesn’t have to be four but again, it’s all about making quick decisions and four is a nice even number so let’s go for the low hanging fruit.
Right now we’re looking for quick wins, so let’s keep things simple because we can always make it more complex later if we want to.
I’m going to go with the tried and true 1-4-5 progression in C.
Chords = C major, F major, G major.
Notice how it’s not four different chords, but I can repeat either G or F in the progression. For example, if I want something a bit tense at the end I could try this progression:
Chords = C major, F major, G major, G major.
If I want something that eases the tension a bit at the end, I would go for this:
Chords = C major, F major, G major, F major.
I’m going to go with the former.
Step 6: Pick up to 4 notes
Now, let’s go back and revisit our scale and choose up to four notes to finally start putting our melody together. The same rules about choosing up to four chords applies here as well.
Remember, keep things simple in the beginning. This alone will give you plenty of options to experiment with, so if you’re feeling at this point, here’s a suggestion: choose a note to play on top of each chord to start mapping things out so that we can fill things in later with more notes. I call this “bookending” the melody.
For starters, let’s say I take one note from each chord and use that to build my melody. For example:
- the note “E” over the C Major Chord,
- the note “A” over the F Major Chord,
- the note “G” over the G Major Chord (repeated over both repetitions of G major).
Next, we lay out each note so that it’s played on the down beat of each measure.
- Measure 1 – The note “E” over the C Major Chord
- Measure 2 – The note “A” over the F Major Chord
- Measure 3 – The note “G” over the G Major Chord
- Measure 4 – The note “G” over the G Major Chord
So now we’ve got a rough skeleton of a melody going on. Now we can easily color in-between the spaces any way we see fit.
Just to recap, here are all the elements I decided upon before writing:
- Key = C Major.
- Mood = Happy.
- Rhythm = 4/4 time.
- Tempo = 120 BPM.
- 4 chords = 1-4-5 progression C major, F major, G major, G major.
- 4 notes = E – A – G – G.
You can check out the end result of melody I wrote using this method over here:
Songwriting is a craft that can take years to develop and like any skill, requires regular practice and mastery over multiple separate elements. Trying to focus on writing an entire song at once can be daunting but by focusing on developing just one element of what makes a song at a time, you can achieve quicker wins that build upon themselves and most importantly, inspire you to keep going.
With that in mind I want to continue breaking down the entire songwriting process and show you how to achieve a specific result be it writing lyrics, crafting a catchy chorus, or determining what song structure suits your idea best in a practical and actionable way.
My hope is that in reading each article in this songwriting series, you’ll have a deeper understanding on not only how to approach and develop each element found in a song but develop your own unique songwriting style.
The important thing to always remember is that even though this is a practice, it should always be enjoyable at the end of the day.
Like I said before, writing songs is a process and there is no one way to do it. That being said, having some simple guidelines can be a huge help in getting the creative gears going, and once you’re there, you can let go of it all and follow your instincts.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the article and if you’d like me to share more ideas like this, let me know in the comments!