For many producers and musicians, starting a new song with a melody first is natural. This is absolutely fine, whatever works best for you.
Establish your lead instrument(s)
I tend to focus on the instruments first, then the melody. If I am aware of the capabilities of the instrument, it helps me determine what form the melody can take. So let’s start with something simple that we can build upon later.
According to some producers, the almighty lead is the defining element that makes your song truly stand out from the rest. I can’t argue it. An amazing lead with an earworm for a melody can have fans playing your tune in their heads all day long. It is the part that many anticipate throughout your song and miss when it’s gone. This is why so much energy is spent on designing leads and creating melodies in modern music and why buildups are critical.
Your choice of the lead is up to you. The options are limitless. Whether you decided to stick with the mid bass, go with a contemporary instrument, or want to use a synth, you will need to make sure it sounds fantastic. To give some ideas, here are just a few common lead types in electronic music.
The decision you make can very depend on the song type. Certain genres will lean on specific leads more often than others. This will all come down to your personal tastes and vision for the song. So pick a lead you really like, get its volume set with some basic mixing and let’s move onto the next step.
Develop the Melodies
Melody creation is an artistic talent that can come naturally for some and be challenging for others. Everyone will have their own methods for coming up with the next catchy melody, but there are a few tricks to generate ideas if needed.
Some basic music theory will help a lot in this stage. You already have an idea for your root key from earlier, now to build off that by picking a musical scale. This will give you creative limits and help you focus in on what options you have. I like to listen to all the notes in a scale and try to pick 4 or 5 that I really like and go from there. Also, intervals will be important to establish at this stage as well.
Another step is determining the rhythm. What is the length of the notes, how much velocity variation will there be, and how fast will the notes come in?
Getting a decent rhythm can sometimes lead into a great melody since you have established some ground rules to work with. These limitations come in handy when creating a melody because it narrows your thought process to the possible options. It’s better than having a blank slate and not knowing where to go next.
So now you have the notes and rhythm set, it’s time to experiment with the melody. This is where you determine the pitch variations, the highs and lows. Think of it as a ride on a roller coaster.
- Will there be steep climbs and sharp drops?
- Or will it be more steady and consistent with only a few bumps and dips?
One idea that has stuck with me, is picturing your melody as a line. If it is flat, it remains boring and dull. If it looks like a bunch of scribbles wildly going up and down, it will be a chaotic mess. You want to plan the ride to have just the right amount of movement without losing the listener.
You should have enough ideas to get your first melody established. Now it’s time to recreate it over and over.
Sounds like fun, right?
Ok, maybe not, but it is very important to follow this step.
Create as many as 10 to 15 variations of your melody. Usually the newer ones continue to get better until you start to run out of ideas. The hard part is picking your favorite 2 or 3. Take your favorite ones and play them to the beats we made earlier.
- Does it sound weird or awkward?
- Does it lack that special something?
- How well do they sound together?
- Does it give you new ideas to advance the song even more?
This is where you can make the little adjustments or tweaks and see what works. Also, be mindful of the mix quality and make tiny adjustments there as well. You will quickly do this on your own, but I continue to remind you since in my opinion it is critical to make these tweaks as you go.
So is this melody the chorus or the main verse?
That is up to you. I tend to prefer the simpler and catchier melody for the chorus. This is important because the chorus usually doesn’t progress and is fairly static. This is also why it must be really good and easy to remember.
Generally, you will want the chorus to have a slightly different melody from the main verse. Now that you have at least one of those two, let’s make the other.
Once you determine which melody will be the verse, I strongly encourage you to work on the progressions. Tell your story with it. Let it convey the emotion in its pitch movement. Share with your audience the moments of suspense or excitement. In most electronic music, you don’t have to go very far with this, but at least 2 or 3 stages in progression can make a big difference.
Also, it can be a good idea to have the verse evolve into the simpler and catchier chorus. This can create a nice tie-in or merger between the parts. So it might be worth trying to progress the verse into the chorus directly. Don’t do this all the time, but something to try once in a while.
I think it is important to stress this part.
Layering is the practice of running multiple instruments together while playing the same melody or pattern. This is very common with modern rock where the lead guitar and the rhythm guitar may play slightly different but very similar melodies.
Electronic music takes it to a whole new level.
It is safe to say that a large amount of the top electronic songs have multiple layers on their leads and in many cases their bass. This is very important for giving the instrument a wider sound and adds character.
For example, a saw wave has a wide harmonic range and covers many frequencies. It usually lacks a strong attack and can be a little harsh in some ranges. Take a pluck instrument and a lead specialized in highs, filter out the saw’s highs and layer the three together. You get a lead with a pluck attack, saw body, and custom crafted highs.
Another one I love is taking a mid bass, layering some highs and then a sub. This turns it into a full instrument that covers the wide range of frequencies.
If this is a new concept to you, try layering together two leads, but pick ones that do not have the same fundamental or root pitch. This way they are not occupying the same frequency range. Put them together and play your melody. It might not sound so great at first, but if they are in tune and not fighting for space in the mix, then you just might find a great layer and a fuller sound.
There are tons of other varieties that I won’t get into, but this gives you the basic idea.
This will get easier with practice and experience. Continue to experiment and it will serve you well to learn some basic sound design. It allows you to make small adjustments and tweaks to help the layers work together.
Once you have your layers in place, it is time make sure everything fits together with your beat and the bass. I tend to listen for flow and form. Here are a few questions to ask yourself at this stage.
- Does everything fit together?
- Are there any frequencies that are unpleasant?
- Are the melodies catchy?
- What is missing?
You should only have a few minor tweaks to make, but if something isn’t working, then it is sometimes better to scrap that element and start over. If you are not digging something, toss it. This can be hard to do, but it’s very important. In my early days, I would spend hours trying to force a melody to work or get the lead sounding better. Later on I would play the song back and wish I just scrapped that part.
Get these elements in order and you are well on your way. Now we can start to outline the actual song and start laying down the foundation.