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When In Doubt… Follow The Melody

A songwriter for whom I’m producing an album recently asked for my ideas about what chords to use to bring a song, in which he’d modulated from one key to another, back to its original key. My immediate response was, ‘Try doing it with the melody’. I suggested that he find an elegant way to bring the melody back to the original key before he worried about the chords.

It may not be quite as catchy as when, in the movie ‘All The President’s Men’, Deep Throat says, “Follow the money”, but I often tell myself – and suggest to other songwriters – “Follow the melody”. More often than not, that’s where I find the answers to the musical mysteries of a song (when I’m able to find them at all…).

Mainly it’s because I believe that’s what we do, as listeners – most of the time we follow the musical ’story’ of the song’s melody. If that feels right to us we’ll follow it through any number of unusual chords, keys… not to mention unusual or questionable lyrics!

Of course, the harmony will affect how we ‘feel’ the melody, similarly to how a music score in a film will strongly affect how a scene of dialogue or action comes across. But, leaving the rhythm of the track or accompanying instrument aside, the notes of the melody, along with the words (and the sounds of the words), is what affects us most, most emotionally – and usually first.

So when I’ve written myself into a songwriting corner I tend to start finding my way by looking closely at the melody. When the melody’s flowing the chords will usually cooperate. Letting the chords take precedence often feels to me like the tail wagging the dog – writing-wise, the background becomes the foreground. Musically, if I stay focused on the melody, making that as strong of a musical story as I can, it usually pays off.

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