Worship Songwriting 101

Just read a great post from a songwriting friend of mine, Martin Reardon. He is a worship leader and songwriting in Atlanta, and was the main worship leader of the Vineyard Music release “1000 Generations.” Note, this is not my band, 1000 Generations! How’s that for confusing?! 😉 Regardless, he is extremely talented and has some great thoughts here…

Steven
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Worship Songwriting Part 1 – Content

From time to time I get requests from people asking for my advice on writing corporate worship music. Although I have written music for a while I do not by any means consider myself the best source. But I do try to help out as best as I can. These are a few of my short thoughts on the subject.

The first thing we have to start with is content. The biggest thing I would recommend is to treat each song like a sermon. I am not sure if you have ever preached or will preach in the future so if I am telling you something you already know feel free to disregard it. What I mean by that is spend as much time as possible researching scripture and texts and concordances for each song’s subject. I know when I prepare a sermon I will spend several hours the week before preparing and meditating and chewing on the text. And the odd thing is the shorter the sermon the more prep time is required because when we try to pack theology into a small suitcase (a song is a very small suitcase) we have to pack deliberately, intentionally and thoughtfully. So instead of grabbing a text like Psalm 34 and attempting to immediately comprehend the ‘fear of the Lord’ and throwing that idea into a song, spend some time asking the Lord what that actually means. Read books on the subject and search scripture for the meaning of things and how they apply to us so that when we pen a lyric it will not only express the emotion we feel as artists, but it will fulfill the greater mission of educating the worshipper about important theological truths. This is the greatest mistake of modern worship songwriting is that we think we only need to emote and that is only a small part of it.

Worship Songwriting Part 2 – The Curse of The Rhyme

No, its not the title of the latest Harry Potter book, but simply a few of my thoughts on “creating” rhymes and cliché lyric that do no one any good at all.

Why does modern worship music suffer? Rather, why do the lyrical content and the method in which it is conveyed cause the listeners to suffer? After giving this some thought and searching my own journal entries of potential songs, I think we can point the finger in several directions. But most of the guilt should lie with our lack of taking the call to educate through music seriously. Worship leading has gone the way of the buffet-style caterer and not the sober-minded educator. But in reality this is nothing new. The poorly-written song has been a legacy in Christian music. Don’t get me wrong, we could spend a great deal of time poking holes in the “poetry” of pop culture as well, but their job as writers is to simply emote and sell a record. Our job is a bit more difficult. We are entrusted with the task of making a song accessible in both composition and lyric while remaining theologically accurate as we walk the tightrope of creativity, which, by the way, is stretched over the abyss of cheese and cliché. And we all know what happens when we fall.

So, you have a wonderful idea inspired by scripture and you have studied and researched and meditated upon it for days and you know within the depth of your “knower” that this is a message that MUST be sung by the congregation, but how?! The first thing I will suggest is to get rid of the grand idea of rhyming everything. Rhyming is a great advantage in helping the average congregant remember a song, but it is not a requirement. Sure Bono is great at it, but you and I are not Bono. If things can naturally rhyme without sounding contrived or forced then go with it. But I have seen too many writers get hung up on a song or a line simply because they were plagued with the curse of trying rhyme. In a Cutting Edge article on corporate songwriting John Mortensen said that we should issue a moratorium on rhyming “adore you” with “before you”. I would like to add a few of my own pet peeves to the list. In the end, what makes a corporate worship song memorable is what people can take with them. Focus on the theology and message first and rhyming second.

The second recommendation I would make is to be careful in choosing words. Verbiage is crucial element in articulating a message. We should all stop trying to sound too deep and overly poetic. If there is any depth to the music we write let it come from truth and theology first and poetic language second. Shy away from the ‘thees’, ‘thous’ and ‘thines’ of the King James translation. And let us also do away with the “church-esque” lingo that has no bearing on the unchurched or non-believer. Instead, let us draw from life. The most powerful and potent poetry comes from writers who draw from the language of daily life. Now I love a hymn as much as the next guy, but we should try to not take too many of our queues from poetry written in another time and another language.

So, when it comes to writing a corporate worship song remember that we are not merely caterers, but educators.

My good friend, Cameron Lawrence, put it so well when he stated that we should, “write poetically in today’s language, within certain bounds. Poetry at the expense of clarity is bad. And the other way around, clarity instead of poetry, isn’t bad per say. But it leaves something to be desired…so, as we pour ourselves into theology, to become better educators, we need also to become more literary — reading poetry, prayers, fiction or whatever else”. I could not agree more with his take on the matter.

Worship Songwriting Part 3 – Composition & Audience

“Who Is The Audience”

I have two main thoughts when it comes to adding composition to lyric: “Who is the audience”? and “Does the composition compliment the lyric”?

The first key to composing worship music is knowing your “audience” or congregation. What is palatable? What is not? What is the median style and preferred taste of the worshippers? What is the median style and preferred taste of the leaders and musicians? If you are unsure of the answers to these questions then you need to go on a fact finding mission. Or you can write songs and try them out repeatedly and see what the results are. But bear in mind that a fact finding mission can save you time and credibility.

All you need to do is simply ask people if they prefer The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. If only it were that simple.

Once you know your audience and you have the idea for your song follow these steps:

1 – Forget about the congregation’s style preferences. After all you are the worship star…I mean, you are the songwriter. Seriously though, take a minute and forget about what everyone else likes and make sure that before you serve a dish to someone that it is something you would eat. Write a song you would listen to.

2 – Now compare your new song to what you know to be true about your congregation’s style preference. Is there a big difference? Is there no difference at all?

3 – Fix it. Fix the song so that it will be palatable. BUT please do not dumb it down to the lowest common denominator. When we do this as writers we lose the tension that is essential in leading worship. We need to find ways to remain in the tension of being accessible and challenging at the same time.

4 – Get honest feedback from people you respect and listen to it. We see the result of the contrary when we watch American Idol auditions. It would seem that no one gives most of the would-be contestants honest feedback. That, or they simply ignore the what people are telling them. Either way the results are the same.

5 – Be willing to kill a song or re-write it. If you love it and your peers love it, but its just not working in your congregation…kill it and start over.

“Does the composition compliment the lyric”

Andy Park’s “In The Secret” does not match up lyrically and musically. I think he actually pointed that out himself to my good friend Billy Somerville. Finding the proper tension is kind of like a good balsamic vinaigrette; it tastes good, but only when we work to keep the “parts” together.

I once saw an interview with Winton Marsalis (I think it was him) and in it he said his father would tell him to stand in the corner and play one note until he could play it through every emotion. Whether my memory is correct or not I really like that idea and try to incorporate that into my writing and playing. Too often we try to make up for lack of emotion in music with more pedals or software and while those tools can be helpful they can never replace the simplicity of a note played with passion. Listen to B.B King for example. He never plays anything complicated…no delay, no reverb, no overdriven amp…just simple notes played with feeling. Its as if his notes cost $1,000 each and he spends them wisely. Try to take the same approach to your writing and playing. Strum a G chord until you can strum it and pick it and pluck it through every human emotion. Let the listener feel what the music and lyrics are saying.

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