Once I have the first draft of lyrics down, I will start putting a melody to them. This is harder than you might think. Some (many?) songwriters will come up with chord progressions either before or while they are writing the melody, but I prefer to get a sense of what the tune will be first. Part of this is because of my limited instrumentalist skills – the longer I can go in the process without sitting at the piano or picking up a guitar, the better!
There are lots of different ways to develop a melody that I’ve picked up on through the years. One of the easiest actually starts with speaking the lines out loud. As you speak them in an overdramatic exaggerated way, you will naturally emphasize certain words more than others. Those emphasized words work best as the higher notes in the melody. So that’s often a good starting point. Other times I will have a good sense of a tune for the first line or two of the chorus already, so that will be my starting point.
There are lots of other general rules that songwriters follow for most of their melodies. Chorus melodies are usually higher than verse melodies, for instance. Often a melody line will be repeated for a couple of lines and then changed slightly for the third line. The second line of the chorus is very often the same melody as the first line of the chorus. The rhythm of the notes also has to be thought out here – another area that is helped by speaking the lines first. Again there are some general rules to look for, such as the fact that the chorus melodic rhythms are often simpler and less busy than the verses.
In the past, I found myself trying to not have a whole lot of repeated notes in one line of melody. But if you listen to a lot of music on the radio these days, you will see that there are lots of melody lines that only use a few notes! So, I’ve let my aversion to repeated notes go, so long as the melody is interesting and easy to sing.
Once I have the tune for the whole song, it’s time to figure out what chords will work best. Chord progressions have a lot of general rules based on hundreds of years of music theory which I won’t go into here. If you are interested, there are some good books out there to teach you about this part of songwriting. In fact, I recently downloaded and read a six “e-book” bundle by Gary Ewer (check out his songwriting blog here) which dealt a lot with chord progressions and songwriting. My chords are generally simple and if I get stuck on one or two, I get my lovely piano playing wife to help me out.
Once I have words, melody, and chords, I consider the song “written.” If I am trying to write multiple songs for an album, I will generally put the song to the side once I have these three elements and start work on the lyrics for my next one. Often I will record a very rough “demo” so that I will remember the tune and chords later and I can listen to it to see what might be improved. After I’ve written several songs like this, I will come back (usually several weeks or months later) and see if I can make the song stronger before I start the process of putting all the instruments together and eventually recording it.