#1
I realize this is a broad question and also super personalized but here it goes.
For awhile now I've been hoping to go about writing a few songs and it's been a little frustrating and more difficult than expected.
And by songwriting I mean the lyrics + melody/chords + guitar part, none of the background track stuff (for now).
For all the songwriters out there, do you mind sharing a small picture of your song writing techniques/tips on how to stay the course and stay creative?
#2
Well I kind of suck at finishing songs but I'll give you some ideas. I also don't write lyrics so this is for the melody/chords/guitar part.

Melody: one important aspect of a melody is that it should be singable. So, one good way to come up with melodies is singing or humming the lyrics you've come up with and see what comes naturally, or if you're starting out with a melody, just try to do some improv-humming and you might get some good ideas. Guitar in my opinion is kind of clumsy as a melody instrument, so I would trust your voice more. 

If you find melodies difficult to "visualize" (or audiate rather) and notice that you can't really come up with good ideas by just humming etc, I think you should do more ear training. Start learning simple melodies by ear and work your way up, and you'll develop an "inner ear" for good melodies that'll help you with coming up with your own.

Phrasing and rhythm are also vital to a good melody. If you just write straight eighth notes the melody might sound kind of dull. So mixing up long notes with faster slurs and more natural, speech-like phrasing is pretty important imo.

Chords: learning how to write some simple chord progressions is a good start. If you have no idea what I mean by I-IV-V-I or I-IV-vi-V or ii-V-I, you might want to study some concepts of functional harmony and roman numeral analysis. If you're not interested in all that, we need to rely on your ears once more. If you know your open chord shapes and some barre chords, you can just try to play different combinations and see what sounds good to you. Even better if you can hum a melody you've come up with at the same time to kind of hear how it fits with the chords you're playing.

But that's a whole lot of trial and error, and I'd definitely recommend learning chord functions and keys to get some theoretical foundation. Chords are much harder to figure out by ear than melodies. The way I usually write progressions, is by the philosophy that simple is better, but too simple is boring. So I usually use a simple progression but I switch up some chords here and there to make the progressions more spicy. Something as simple as borrowing chords from the parallel major or minor key can make the chords sound a lot more interesting.

Guitar parts: usually, there are two things you do with a guitar in the context of popular music: chords and riffs. I already covered chords a bit so I'll stick to riffs here. Riffs are more so than anything based around rhythm, which doesn't mean that the note choices etc. wouldn't matter, but in a lot of songs the riff is the part that's supposed to make you move and fistpump to the music or whatever. So when coming up with your own riffs, I'd advise you to come up with a catchy rhythm first and base the riff off of that. There are exceptions of course, a lot of people would call the intro of Sweet child o' mine a riff, but it's just straight rhythm without a strong pulse.But a lot of memorable riffs, like Back in black, Enter Sandman, Smoke on the water, Breaking the law, Iron man and many others are mostly about their strong rhythm. This advice is geared towards rock more than anything, but for other genres the guitar very often just sticks to chords. And I tried to make the advice as general as I could.

I hope some of this is new information and I hope you get some ideas at least from my ramble.
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#3
There's really no particular approach. Sometimes I set out with a specific sound in mind. Sometimes I start with a melody or a chord progression. Sometimes I start with a drum beat. Sometimes I start with a particular sound (like a synth patch that I choose for timbre). Sometimes I start with a few words.

Once you have the first piece, you add the next piece or two. If I start with the drums, I'll make a chord progression and maybe a bass line to outline the harmony and lock in with the drum beat, particularly the kick.

It's all about finding a starting point and asking what works with that. For the record, a lot of what I write is very simple in terms of structure, usually with just an A section repeated or maybe A and B but I create variations by changing instruments or drum beats (switching 16th hats for 8th rides for example) and building up and breaking down.

You can create a very compelling piece of music using just a single two to four chord progression if you change things up by dropping things in and out (such as pads and arpeggiators and melodies) or switch to a different bass sound or double time the drums or whatever.

That's how I approach it anyway.
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#4
emmanueltse5 

I think this recent youtube video is a  good addition to this thread... Mark Knopfler discussing the songwriting process:


#5
There's two angles I approach it from.

1. If it's a "song" - i.e., something to be "sung", with lyrics - then I usually start with an idea. This is usually a verbal phrase that feels like it would be good do sing, and is usually connected to a theme or  topic for the whole song.  I.e., something I think it would be good to sing about. (Not just yet another love song... unless I think I have a fresh angle to approach that topic from....)  
Sometimes the idea for the topic comes first, and I then have to think of a hook phrase that suns it up and could be sung.
The initial phrase - the "seed" of the idea - is not just words, but has a vague melodic and rhythmic shape, which I then try and define more precisely on guitar, usually by singing it until it feels right.  It might only be 3 or 4 notes, no more than one bar in length.
The melody of that phrase will usually then inspire its own development.  I'd use repetition of the melody, and think of some different words, hopefully to rhyme.  Getting words to rhyme and scan is really the hardest part to writing a song, IMO.  I hate songs where the rhythm of the words sounds unnatural - for me, a sung phrase has to have a natural rhythm, with similar emphases to if it was spoken.  (I don't want words like "the" or "a" to fall on strong beats.)
The key word here is prosody: a natural, rhythmic musicality shared by speech, poetry and melody.
I suppose an additional problem is finding chord sequences that don't sound cliched, or don't sound like the last song I wrote...  But I always make sure the melody flows first, and then try and use the most obvious, simple chords, so as not to distract from the melody.  Stock chord sequences are fine, if the melody (and/or theme of the song) is original and strong enough.  Still, there are some sequences I simply ban from consideration: such as I-V-vi-IV...

2. When I have no idea for a song, I'll often just noodle away aimlessly on guitar.  I enjoy doing that anyway, not trying to compose anything, but often a good little phrase or chord change will emerge.  If it's good enough - if it feels like the spark of an idea, that could have legs - I'll try to develop it.  Sometimes this is about trying to find interesting chord moves, but normally I try to resist falling down the rabbit hole of fancy changes, and stick with melody - singable melody (even if I have no words).   Melody will guide a chord progression.  A chord progression with no melody is aimless, it could go anywhere.  With no melody, that's where you get bogged down in all the options, all the possible chords that could follow any other chord.
If the tune is going to remain instrumental, then I usually will try to make the chords more interesting/jazzy than I would if it was a song.  That's partly because I'm a pretty awful singer, and I don't want to be struggling through some fancy changes while also trying to sing.  (I often imagine my songs being sung by someone else anyway, which is another reason not to make the accompaniment too fancy.)

Even so, the above two methods do sometimes overlap.  A song that begins as an instrumental (developed from noodling) might acquire words at a later stage, if I feel the melody sounds like it could fit particular phrases naturally.

Just occasionally (probably not enough) I work with unusual tunings - or even with a piano - so I'm out of my EADGBE comfort zone.  Anything that emerges is then strongly dictated by the nature of that tuning (or instrument) - which can be a good and bad thing.  (Just recently I was writing a tune in DADGAD, and realised that the shapes I was using - the sounds I was trying to create - were as easy in EADGBE, with small adjustments.  What felt exotic or unusual because of the tuning was in fact just more of the same kind of thing I wrote in EADGBE.)
Last edited by jonriley64 at May 18, 2017,