Should I Start With the Melody or the Harmony?
This is a common question when learning to compose music. The answer is a simple one. You need to start with both.
How Do I Start with Both Melody and Harmony?
Let me stat out by asking you a question. If you were to write a simple melody as follows:
Are you writing the melody first? Yes. But you are also writing the harmony first. Let me explain.
The Melody Should Outline The Harmony
As a beginner composer, it is important to be specific about what you write. The reason for this is you are still learning the craft. Practicing specificity in the music you compose teaches you an important thing, how not to be ambiguous.
Ambiguity is an effect that could be used deliberately for certain effects, but we are not concerned about that here. For our purposes in learning how to compose music, ambiguity is our enemy. We do not gain any experience from just throwing down notes on a piece of paper.
So back to the above example.
You will notice in the first bar, three specific notes are played.
With just these three notes, it is very clear what the harmony is, the tonic, especially as they are at the beginning of the composition. But after these notes, there is another, very specific figure that helps us outline the harmony as well.
And then of course, it goes back to the tonic scale degree after this.
So we end up with this:
The point I am trying to make is you can approach a composition horizontally, writing a melody first, or you can approach it vertically, writing the harmony first. But, if you really want to make leaps and bounds in your composing, you should practice composing non-ambiguous music, that takes into account both melody and harmony at the same time. This will help you hone your skills and give you the resources to flesh out what you hear in your head.
As an exercise, see if you can fill out the harmony in this melody below.
Let me know what you think.