How to Write A Melody Over Chords | Hub Guitar

How to Write A Melody Over Chords

If you’re given a set of chords, how do you write a melody over them?

In order to begin this task, we need to have a basic understanding of consonanceRefers to how closely two notes harmonize together. In one extreme, three C notes combined together will be completely consonant. In the other extreme, B, C and D♭ combined together will be extremely dissonant. used in harmony. And it also helps to understand how to do the reverse, which is to harmonize a melody by adding chords. Finally, it’s useful to have a basic understanding of how rhythmic stress affects the melody.

Consonance In Melody

Roughly speaking, there are four basic levels of consonance that a potential melody note may have with a chord.

  1. Completely consonant notes are in the chord already. A melody consisting only of chord notes might be a little boring, but it would not sound incorrect. An argument could be made that the notes of a chord also have varying degrees of consonance with the chord.
    • Root notes are the most consonant, and thus can be boring in the melody.
    • Fifths of the chord are the second most consonant, also a bit boring, except for the min7♭5 chord.
    • Thirds and fifths offer contrast to the chord’s root and fifth. Many melodies seem to target these two notes.

  2. Partially consonant notes are not in the chord, but are:
    1. in the key, and
    2. a valid chord tension
    In many styles of music, partially consonant notes will resolve to fully consonant ones before the chord changes. In harmonically complex styles such as jazz, partially consonant notes are stable enough that they don’t need to resolve. They may also be supported by being played as a part of the chord.

  3. Partially dissonant notes are those that are in the key, but not a valid chord tone or tension. One example would be the note “F” on the chord C major, in the key of C. It’s in the key, but not in the chord, and not a tension. This note would usually be avoided for that chord. They may also sometimes be notes that are not in the key, and not in the chord, but a viable tension on the chord. One example is F♯ on the E-7 chord in the key of C. It is not in the key, but in another key it would be a viable tension on the same chord. If a partially dissonant note is played, it would usually be weakened by:
    1. Short duration
    2. Attack occurs on a weak beat (such as an upbeat)
    3. Soft, non-accented attack
    4. Resolves to a completely consonant note

  4. Completely dissonant notes are those neither in the key, nor in the chord, nor viable as any tension of the chord under any circumstance. In most styles of music, these are avoided. But if they are used, they would often be weakened by the same methods used to weaken partially dissonant chords. Weakening them lowers their level of dissonance and makes them more tolerable for the listener to hear.

Procedural Construction of Melody

By following the above examples, we can begin to construct melodies procedurally. We can begin with completely consonant notes, occasionally adding some partially consonant notes for more color. As we advance in crafting our melodies, we can begin to experiment with more dissonant notes, taking care at least in the beginning to soften them as much as possible, until we’ve learned to control the dissonance.

For our trial, we’ll use three chord progressions. These progressions were chosen because they are relatively common, and because they tend to lend support to a strong melody.

Typical “I–IV–V” in F


This is the most simple of all of our examples. In the first line, we are given three chords to write a melody to, and in the second line we add our own melody. The melody is made up mostly of chord tones. Note that especially on beats with a strong stress, chord tones are used. The melody is almost completely consonant, with a few partially consonant notes, and few (if any) dissonant notes.

Slightly exotic “Andalusian cadence” from Spanish music, in A minor


Again, we prefer to use chord tones when possible. The more dissonant a note is, the stronger the case is to soften it somehow, either with a short duration, or by approaching it and resolving it by step, for example. Notice in the last measure we use the concept of consonance to choose G♯ for the melody. The G note from natural minor does not fit nearly as well as the G♯. This gives the melody more confidence.

Secondary Dominant Resolving to Relative Minor in G


More complex chords invite more complex melody with more use of dissonance. But even here, any dissonance is handled with care. For instance, the A♯ as the melody approaches the B7 chord is placed on the “and of 4”, one of the weakest beats in the measure. And, of course, it resolves by half step to a note in the B7 chord.

Key Tasks

  1. For each example given above, analyze the melody. Write an Arabic numeral over each melody note, indicating what function that note has on the chord. Is it a chord tone or tension? Is it in the key? Is it a dissonance or consonance?
  2. For each example above, write your own melody. Take note that the examples are given in order of increasing complexity. The first example seems to merit a very simple and consonant melody, while the last example might need something more dissonant.
  3. Analyze your own melodies. What notes are dissonances and consonances?
  4. Play your melody along with the chords. Are there any problem areas? How can you use your understanding of dissonance and consonance (and rhythmic stress) to strengthen consonances or weaken dissonances until they are under your control, and your melody sounds suitable?
As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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