Is there such a thing as songwriting practice? Yes, there is. Although we songwriters might not always be aware of it, there are systems and patterns we all tend to follow, in order to end up with a song that makes sense (as opposed to some random combo of melody and chords.) This is something worth practicing daily, like a violinist practices their scales.
Whether we start with the progression, the lyrics, or the melody, a song must be interesting and if we are in the business of writing successful songs, it must also be catchy. But it is difficult to come up with a creative and catchy melody if the harmonic support is weak. A melody needs a proper runway to take flight and your chord progression is it. Now here’s the good news: chord progressions don’t have to be unique, they just have to make sense. In fact, more often than not, they are pretty standard. Look at a 12-bar blues for instance: that same chord progression has been played thousands of times but the different melodies that top it make each and every blues unique. It’s amazing how we can endlessly keep coming up with melodies that are new, no matter how common the chord progression might be.
If you are new to songwriting, or if your inspiration needs a boost, practice writing melodies to chord progressions that you find inspiring. For instance, I love Radiohead’s chord progression in their song Karma Police. Particularly the end bit:
Bm D G D G D E7
“And for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself”
To warm up a bit and play around with ideas, I would play the progression on piano or guitar and make up my own melody. Then I’d begin to modify the rhythm, and notice how a subtle change in cadence can take the song an entirely different place. I might experiment with various styles too; make it jazzy, rock, country… the sky is the limit.
My personal preference is to write the lyrics once I have a melody, however there are no rules. Some writers prefer to start with lyrics and shape their melody around the phrasing. It’s always interesting to challenge ourselves with different writing techniques. What matters most is that you keep your creative juices flowing.
Want to see a live demo of melodic practice? Check out my video!
Cheers from London.