Starting with harmony instead of melody

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If you are like me, getting started on a piece of music (arrangement or composition) is often the hardest step. We all have tendency to get stuck looking for that idea that will define the song.

One of the things you always need to keep in mind is that you have tons and tons of options. You can build an idea with a melody line. You can do it with harmony, rhythm, dynamics, articulation and of course, any combination of these things.

That being the case, many of us start look for ideas with the melody and get frustrated.  I would recommend that when that happens, start cycling through the other possibilities.  For example, I tend to build off a harmonic progression.  The melody is defined by harmony rather than the other way around.

To do this, you have to just start by defining a progression to work with.  It might have 4-6 chords; it certainly does not need to be longer than that.

In a recent arrangement, I started by just defining this progression:

I – iv6 – I – iv6 – iii7 – Vi7 – ii7 – V7

I would not consider this progression to be anything special.  It does not have the fanciest chords in the world but it does have some interesting chords (iv6 and VI7 are not “out there” by any means but still nice choices).

You need a progression that is functional.  This progression is as functional as functional can be.  There are specific rules for every chord movement and this progression follows all those rules right down to ending on a ii – V.  I talk about functional harmony a lot because it is critical.  It is not necessarily complicated though.  You can learn everything you need to know in either Theory for Church Pianists or Reharmonization.

If you know functional harmony, it is easy to come up with progressions to build on.  You can cycle around the circle of fifths, you can step, you can use special functional chords, etc.

Once you have defined a progression, you then can start building a melody line on top of it.  It actually becomes quite easy.  You can define rhythmic elements too.

When building the melody line, you have to either play notes that belong to the key signature or notes that belong to the underlying chord.  Remember that you always have more notes at your disposal than you might think.  We don’t want melody lines that consist of the triad notes of the underlying chords.  That is very boring.  So experiment!

This is sort of a backwards way of approaching things, but it works for me. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.