Songwriting is a craft. As in any craft – ice skating, painting, public speaking, cooking – there are best practices that border on being rules.
These standards sometimes define the craft. For instance, if an ice skater glides into the spotlight carrying a stick and hitting a puck she’s no longer ice skating but playing some form of hockey.
At other times these best practices determine what is “good” or “bad” craftsmanship. Painting without regard for composition, for example, may still be called “painting” but it is also likely to be called “bad” painting.
The university I visited last week asked me to teach a class on songwriting. They didn’t, however, tell me the students would be worship music majors. As I taught what little I know about the craft, the students kindly rebutted: “But what about when Chris Tomlin…”
The frontrunners in worship music do not adhere to most of the best practices that have long defined the songwriting craft. So is what they do even songwriting? Is it bad songwriting? Or is it a new thing altogether, defined by a set of best practices all its own?
I’m not passing judgment – just making the observation and asking questions that may only seem important to me and my nerdy songwriting friends.
So, for the three of you still reading? Here are just a few of the songwriting practices worship writers are routinely ignoring.
WHAT A BRIDGE IS FOR
We all know what a verse and chorus are but what about a bridge? It’s the part that happens (usually) only once in the song. In a pop song it almost always comes after the second chorus. It’s purpose? To say something new, to bring a new angle lyrically and musically. But not so in modern worship songs.
In modern congregational music the bridge is so often one or two lines repeated several times. They are more about creating a musical emotional “moment” than they are about contributing any new concept lyrically.
(A song doesn’t have to have a bridge, by the way, but when it does there’s a standard for how it should function.)
SUPPORT THE HOOK
The hook of a song is often the title, and usually a word or short phrase tied closely to the main idea of the song. It’s also the one piece of lyric a listener is most likely to walk away remembering. It’s usually the centerpiece of the chorus. And the verse lyrics lead the listener to the hook.
A good example is Katy Perry’s song “Firework.” The hook is “firework”. Look at how the first verse of the song begins very generally and then slowly becomes more specific, centering in on imagery related to “firework”. This is called supporting the hook. She begins by describing a broad feeling, then attaches that feeling to the metaphor of “firework” with related words like “spark,” “ignite,” “shine,” and “4th of July.”
Do you ever feel like a plastic bag
Drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?
Do you ever feel, feel so paper thin
Like a house of cards, one blow from caving in?
Do you ever feel already buried deep?
Six feet under screams, but no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you
‘Cause there’s a spark in you?
You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine
Just own the night like the 4th of July
And here’s the chorus with the hook at the forefront.
‘Cause baby, you’re a firework
Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth
Make ‘em go, oh, oh, oh
As you shoot across the sky
Katy supported the hook well: That verse couldn’t be a verse in any other song. It has to be paired with that hook: “firework.”
Now look at the hit worship song “Stronger” by Hillsong. The hook is “stronger.” Here’s the first verse.
There is love that came for us
Humbled to a sinner’s cross
You broke my shame and sinfuless
You rose again victorious
Faithfulness none can deny
Through the storm and through the fire
There is truth that sets me free
Jesus Christ who lives in me
And here’s the chorus.
You are stronger you are stronger
Sin is broken, you have saved me
It is written, Christ is risen
Jesus you are Lord of all
The hook is supported so poorly that this first verse could just as easily be paired with the chorus of “How Great Is Our God” or “Mighty To Save.” When a hook isn’t well supported a song becomes so general it’s generic. Speaking of being a bit too general…
MORE DETAIL IS MORE UNIVERSAL
Patty Griffin is a great writer in part because when she describes a scene I feel like I’m there. When she introduces a character? I can see them in my mind’s eye. Just enough detail – not too much – anchors a song’s message (and every song has one) in the real world. And that makes it universal – more appealing/relatable to any human living in the real world.
But today’s worship songs talk about God and the writer’s experience with Him in so little detail that she could just as well be talking about her boyfriend or anyone admirable or beloved. A few of the often used generic descriptions of God are “good”, “majestic”, “great”, “loving”, “merciful.” And they’re all true! The Bible says so!
But the Bible says so with specificity – within a large detailed story made up of smaller detailed stories that take place in the real (ancient) world. It tells us exactly what is unique about the goodness, majesty, greatness, love and mercy of our God. It tells us why, how, to whom and when He is good, majestic, etc. And so the God of the Bible is anchored in real life and portrayed as a Person so unique that He cannot possibly be mistaken for your boyfriend…or anyone else.
A songwriter cannot say something new, but she can something old in a new way. Pick any song that’s stood for generations and read the lyric. Odds are it doesn’t contain a single line that had been heard verbatim before. But worship music?
Here’s the chorus to chart-topping worship song “I Lift My Hands” by one of our best: Chris Tomlin.
I lift my hands to believe again
You are my refuge, You are my strength
As I pour out my heart
These things, I remember
You are faithful, God, forever
Biblical? Sure. These words are almost entirely copied and pasted from scripture – the Psalms, to be exact.
Only in the writing of worship songs is such constant copying and pasting and pasting and pasting again not looked down upon.
WHY ARE THE RULES DIFFERENT FOR WORSHIP WRITING?
I have a theory. I think worship writers have parted with standard songwriting practices because they’re creating with the live experience in mind. So their priorities are much different from those of a traditional songwriter.
Participation, for instance, is a top priority for the worship music experience. To ensure our participation on Sunday morning, lyrics and melodies and song forms are simplified to the point that standard practices are broken.
Because when we participate we want to feel something too, writers and producers give us a lot of long-building crescendos, emotive guitar swells, drum breaks, and other production techniques that stir our emotions during the live experience. And they don’t put as much effort into crafting lyrics, which tend to be thought of (right or wrong) as tools best suited for eliciting thought rather than emotion.
We don’t want a great song. We want a great experience. And that’s what worship writers are giving us.
This is either resulting in good hockey or bad painting. I don’t pretend to know which. What do you think?