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Melody or harmony first?

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I'm just curious to see when you guys are writing, if you set down a melody or harmony as first and let the one generate the other, so to speak. It's inevitable that we all keep in mind both to some degree, but have you ever found that isolating one produced better results for you, or resulted in more ease? Myself, I use an early 20th century harmonic language so I find it a little easier to generate small blocks of harmony first and then work the melody on top. Downside is I feel like my melodies are overshadowed and don't stand on their own as well as the harmony. Tips, thoughts, stories, etc?

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IT all depends on what I'm working on. I've even done rhythm first, then harmony. That's how this huge piece I'm working on started - as X's on a sheet of graph paper.

I find it easiest to work from a melody though. You can create insane harmonies since you only have one note to work from.

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I find it easier to write a melodic line without any harmony first, this give me more freedom melodically. When the harmony comes first I think the melody it may sound less interesting due to restrictions you might be doing with the harmony and trying the melody to fit in. But everybody works different and everybody gets the things in different ways. I tend to do it in both ways, sometimes I start with harmony and others with melody. Then to find the chord that will fit better to the desire or purpose I have for the melody. But again everybody approach it different and get different results. As I can find easier to write a melodic line first another one can see a world of possible and great melodies in a pattern of harmonies.

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im more of a harmony person, so i compose the harmony first. (but when i improvise, obviously i compose both at the same time. )

i kind of have the same problem as you. i feel like the harmony is dragging my melody along, and the melody is just kind of "following the harmony without a mind of its own".

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I'm only just starting out at learning how to compose. I haven't written that many pieces. Most of what I've done are songs and simple instrumental duets. When writing songs I have always started with lyrics, then the melody, and finally filled in with harmony.

Clearly that's not the only way to it. In fact, just recently on these forums I was asked write lyrics for existing harmony. I found that to be a quite interesting challenge. I actually managed to put the lyrics into the harmony, and I guess I simultaneously wrote the melody by the simple fact that I actually sang the lyrics. So I guess I was making up the melody as I sang them. The lyrics seemed to pretty much dictate the melody. Although I'm sure someone else might sing the same lyrics differently.

When it comes to instrumentals I've worked both ways.

For example in this Flute and Guitar Fantasy I decided on a chord progression first, and then wrote the flute melody. The guitar is mostly arpeggios.

Flute and Guitar Fantasy

However, in this Banjo and Guitar duet I just started with the melodies and let the harmony unfold as it went along.


In truth though, I think it was easier to paint melody over the cavass of an existing harmony. At least it was easier for me because the harmony had already paved the way. It was like a road to drive the melody over. I always knew where I was headed.

I remember that when I was writing the Banjo and Guitar duet I was always stumped at the end of each measure not sure where to go next. So I think choosing a chord progression or harmony first seems to be for me when writing pure instrumentals. But when writing songs I think I prefer to start with the lyrics, then melody and finally color in the harmony.

Here's another example where I started with lyrics, then melody, and then filled in with harmony and accompaniment on the piano. It's not very fluent, but it might give an idea of how that all came together. It still needs a lot of work. In fact the piano is terrible. It's not fluent at all.

Silence Fills My Ears

But like I say, I'm only just starting out composing and so I really have no clue what I'm doing yet.

Just thought I'd share my thoughts for whatever their worth. ;)

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I'm only just starting out at learning how to compose. I haven't written that many pieces. Most of what I've done are songs and simple instrumental duets. When writing songs I have always started with lyrics, then the melody, and finally filled in with harmony.

I know this may sound odd, but next time, try to write lyrics, the rhythmic outline of the lyrics, then your melody/harmony. I think you'll find there is a great deal you can do by simply figuring out your lyric rhythm first. You might even find some places where you can do more with the lyrics rhythmically and produce a more well-rounded song.

For example, some lyrics actually have rhythmic suggestions that, if you use them, strengthen the meaning of the text. Check out YouTube - American Idol 7 Top 7 - David Cook - "Always Be My Baby".

There's a reason I think David Cook won AI, and it wasn't just that he could arrange his own songs. Pay attention to the end of the song to how he treats the lyrics, "...you will always be..." and "...you will linger on..." as he brings these out with longer durations.

Give rhythm before melody a try if you like, and let me know if that works for you.


P.S. Yeah, all you Nay-Sayers, I DID just use a David Cook reference to suggest a composition technique. What can I say? I'm a big fan.

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Give rhythm before melody a try if you like, and let me know if that works for you.

I actually I think I do that already.

I had stated that I do melody before 'harmony'.

Not melody before 'rhythm'.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the terms.

To me, Harmony would have to do with things like chord progressions, keys, and modulation. It doesn't necessarily have anything at all to do with rhythm. In other words, I could write a chord progressions with modulations and never suggest what rhythm should be used, and I would have defined a "Harmony". Any rhythm could then be applied to that harmony.

Like I say, this is my understanding of the terms. And so I could be wrong.

So when I say that I start with melody first, I'm thinking that I just sing the song melodically, and then fill in whatever harmonies are required to go with that tune.

The beat, (or rhythm) is a totally seperate issues for me. In fact, when I stop and think about it, the beat (or rhythm) usually does come first and it comes directly from the mood of the lyrics. Along with whatever rhythm just happens to possess me at the time. (ha ha)

Here's another example of a song I wrote.

You're The Author <--- this is a link to my web page with the mp3.

I started with the lyrics, then melody, then found chords (harmony) to match the melody.

I have no clue where the rhythm came from (ha ha)

I never gave a thought to designing the meter. I just did what came natural to me. So in a sense, I guess I was already allowing the lyrics to 'dictate' the rhythm.

I've also posted this song with the lyrics and chords in the Choral/Vocal forum here:

http://www.youngcomposers.com/forum/youre-author-15351.html <--- this is a link to a forum post.

I have no clue how to write a song. I just do the best I can. But with songs, I always start with lyrics first, and then let the music come out of that.

With instrumental pieces I imagine a person can come at it from any direction. It might start with a beat, or a harmony, or a melody. I can see any 'seed' evolving into more complex music.

Once you have music I suppose you could be inspired to write lyrics for it too.

Usually the songs I write are inspired by thoughts that inspire lyrics directly (I tend to write a lot of poetry). So once I have the lyrics in place, then I need to come up with music to put them to. So that's just a natural process that I go through, but it's certainly not the only way, nor necessarily the best way.

Any method that works is great!

I guess I'm more of a lyrcists than a musician. So that's why I work from words toward music. But I see no reason why it can't go in the other direction too. I do see people who have written music and are seeking lyrcists to put words to it. They usually have some idea of what they want to convey, they just aren't good at manipulating words to fit the music well. So this is why they start with the music and work back toward the words.

Everyone is different and that's cool. ;)

Thanks for the advice by the way. I'll have to look into the video you've posted. I'm on dial-up so I'll have to download it whilst I go mow the lawn or something.

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Well, we can divide the whole thing into two different POVs:

Vertical or Horizontal thinking.

Basically, vertical is where you work with chords and clusters of sounds, while horizontal is, for example, homophone music where you only deal with melody (or melodies.)

The thing with "harmony and melody" is that using the terms like that is misleading. It's true that you can think out something "from the harmony" before you lay down your motives or melody material. But the reality is, if you're following voice leading rules you'll end up anyways writing melodies if you chose to look at each voice's individual movement horizontally.

Invariably, it's impossible to ignore either points of view. You HAVE to think horizontally if you're to write anything at all since horizontal invokes the principle of time. IE, repetitions, motives, etc are all in function of time and what notes play when.

And likewise, you have to think vertically since unless you're writing a homophone piece (and even then, tone quality itself doesn't need to depend on intervals or chords), you have to deal with how things sound together, such as intervals, chords, and so on.

One involves time, the other involves sound textures itself.

It doesn't matter where you start, since you'll end up dealing with the same things regardless so it's just a matter of comfort or maybe inspiration. IE, If you have a melody you want to get rid of, you may want to write that first. ETC.

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Develop your melody first and then derive your harmony from your melody. If you think about it, everyone can remember their favourite tune. No-one has a favourite harmony. It doesn't mean you can't do different things with the harmony. But just about every composer is remembered for their melodies. So work on developing this.

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Each of the styles, I think, Will have a different approach a different "foundation" and definetely a different structure. Wich means that thetre is no good way to start. ANd It really depends on what you want as a result...

I think if you just use one technique, there is no way of finding new approach or writing techniques that will improve and extends your compositonal skills.

I usually " Go with the Flow", and welcome new techniques and let the ideas come as they were ment to come out.

I wish you all good creations!

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Sometimes I'll start with a rhythm, especially when I want to write a song in an unusual time signature, like 5/4, 6/8 or something.

Often, I'll randomly come up with a melody in my head and want to put it into song, so then I'll start with melody.

But generally, if I have a feel that I'm going for, and I really want to hunker down and get something done, I'll start with a chord progression and work from there. I couldn't tell you which is better, except that since I'm not the best composer, starting with a chord progression forces me to keep things interesting.

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  • 12 years later...

Probably melody. But after I have a main idea, I sort of start creating both at the same time. But they are on equal footing to me. when we listen to music, we’re usually digesting it as an indissoluble whole. 

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