Every guitarist has that moment when they realize they want to write a song. You’re listening to your favorite album, and you think, “I can do that!”
I remember having that moment myself early on in my own guitar journey, but not having the tools to quite get there.
Today, I’m going to give you one of those tools and teach you how to write a melody over chords.
Not only will this allow you to write killer songs that you can share with your friends and family, but it’ll also give you a more holistic understanding of music so that you can really pick apart songs when you hear them.
Sounds good? Let’s dive in!
Transform Your Guitar Playing in 10 Minutes a Day
Remember, the secret to a fulfilling guitar journey is consistency, not laborious practice.
Snag your FREE TAC Progress Tracker today and build the skills to learn songs faster in just 10 minutes a day!
The Connection Between Chords and Melody
Before we get to crafting the melody, we need to get some basics down.
When you play a chord, you’re playing a group of guitar notes that create a harmonic structure. Melody, on the other hand, is a sequence of single notes – it’s the part of a song people hum along with.
When you start writing a melody, it’s easy to think about it as a “chords vs. melody” situation.
But that’s not it at all!
The chords and melody of a song play off of one another. Think of it like storytelling. Chords give structure and context to a song, while melodies provide emotion.
How to Create a Melody Over Chords
There’s no right way to write a song, let alone create a melody over chords. In fact, there are a ton of different ways you can approach the process:
1. Understand the Chord Progression
Melody and chords work together. One of the first things you need to do when you write a melody over chords is to figure out the chord progression.
Chord progressions are a series of chords played one after another – essentially, it’s the song’s road map! It guides you through the song and gives you the framework to create an exciting melody.
When you start to think about the chord progression of a song, think about what it’s trying to convey. What emotions do the chords make you feel? What key is the song in? What’s the timing of the song? What chords are used?
These questions help to give you a basic understanding of the song’s structure and make it easier to create a melody.
2. Experiment With Chord Tones
You’ve got the chord progression down, now, it’s time to play around with the melody. The first thing you need to do is look at the chord tones.
Chord tones are the notes that belong to the current chord being played. Because they harmonize with their corresponding chord, they make up the majority of a melody.
After you know the chord tones of a chord progression, you can start having real fun with it and laying down some improvised melodies over the chords.
For example, if you play the C chord, you can experiment with the notes C, E, or G in your melody while you’re using that chord. Once you switch to the next chord in your progression, you can then experiment with the chord tones of that particular chord.
Here you can also incorporate octaves. An octave is the interval between two notes of the same name (so, for instance, C).
To find an octave of a note, pick a note and move twelve frets higher or lower than the note you picked. Bam, you’re on the same note, just at a different pitch!
Play around with octaves to see if they add flavor to your melody. If a higher octave doesn’t work, try to go an octave lower.
3. Experiment With Scales
Guitar scales are an organized group of notes that sound good in a given key. Major pentatonic scales go over major chords, and minor pentatonic scales go over minor chords.
Specific scales go with specific musical keys so that you can match the scale to the song. They’re powerful because they can evoke different emotions, so it’s important to choose carefully when you’re creating your melody.
One way to experiment with scales is to pick one for each chord in the chord progression, and then switch scales with each chord change. Then try improvising over the chords using the corresponding scales.
4. Incorporate Non-Chord Tones
Not all tones belong in a chord. Non-chord tones are notes that aren’t part of a song’s chord or harmony playing at a given moment. Adding non-chord tones can be tricky, but they can make a melody sound unique.
Adding non-chord tones into a song introduces tension, and our brains actually like hearing this!
That’s because non-chord tones introduce something called dissonance, or combining sounds that feel tense or unstable.
In our case, non-chord tones produce dissonance in a song.
Here are two examples of incorporating non-chord tones into your melody:
Use a Passing Tone
A passing tone is a non-chord tone that connects two adjacent chord tones in a melody. It’s like a musical bridge.
For example, think of a C major chord (made up of C, E, G). If your melody moves from C to E, you need to insert a passing tone between them, like D, to bridge the gap.
A suspension is a non-chord tone that has you sustain a note from a previous chord into the next chord. This creates temporary dissonance that resolves into a chord tone.
Suspension is an awesome and easy way to add emotional depth and interest to your melody.
5. Pay Attention to the Rhythm
I’m not just talking about the rhythm for chord progressions. Think about the rhythm in your melody!
This is all experimentation here. One way to experiment is to pick out the chord tones for the chord progression. Then play different rhythms. Use the same notes, but vary the speed or mix up the order of the notes.
Feel free to try unconventional rhythms. Experiment with unexpected pauses or an offbeat note.
6. Sing or Hum It First
Sometimes, the easiest way to create a melody over chords is the simplest – sing or hum it out!
Record your chords using whatever microphone you have handy (a phone works just fine). The recording can be as long or as short as you want. If you’re working on the chorus? Great! The verse and the chorus? Cool! Whatever works for you.
Once you’ve got it recorded, take it to a quiet place.
From there, hit play on the recording and have at it. Whatever you sing or hum doesn’t have to be perfect on the first go. You don’t even have to like it at first!
The key is to keep at it. Once the recording ends, hit play again and try something different. After you play around with it for a while, you may end up with something you like.
7. Be Mindful of Patterns and Shapes
When you listen to music, sometimes there’s an expectation of a note to be hit or a chord to be played. When that note or chord comes along as predicted, it’s exciting. It’s like a puzzle piece finally sliding into place!
We can achieve that excitement in our melody by incorporating a pattern into the melody. For example, we could start with a higher note and then move downward for the rest of the bar. You could move up to the next bar, and then repeat those two bars.
There are countless patterns you can come up with. Another way to develop patterns is to look at the shapes of chords. There are several ways to play an F chord, for example. Looking at the different chord shapes is another way to help you identify other notes within the key.
Moving Beyond Melodies
When you create a melody over chords, you have to understand the relationship between them. The chord progression is the framework for the song, but from there, you have so much creative freedom to weave all sorts of beautiful melodies.
If you’d like to learn more about creating melodies and build a consistent, lifelong guitar-playing habit at the same time, watch this FREE guitar class, where I show you the three secrets to faster guitar learning in 10 minutes a day.