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?
A convicting word. Do we worship like this? I hope not! :)
An instructive perspective from another tradition. Perhaps, in our appropriate reaction to dead liturgy we have gone to far the other way. Maybe we’ve tossed out the juice along with the pulp. We’ve demolished the house to clean out the cobwebs.
Watch video here: http://members.worshiptraining.com/blog/media/worship-leader-location/
by Jordan Stone
“When I first began the journey of planting a church one common refrain of encouragement from seasoned planters was, “Identify your church’s core values. Communicate them clearly and often.”
Now, this isn’t the place to quibble with whether or not mission statements and core values ought to be a “first order of business” reality in planting a church. When used rightly, just like church confessions, core values function as faithful identifiers of what a local church understands and treasures about its faith and practice.
So we came up with what we call at Imago Dei Church, “Things We Want to Be True.” Things that we hope would permeate our church’s life together and witness to the world. One of those things is that we would be “A Singing Church.”
WHY WE SING
Why have a specific desire to be a singing church? Two things come immediately to mind.
1. Singing mirrors the character of God.
Zephaniah’s only recorded sermon helped bring spiritual revival to God’s people after the long and disastrous reign of Manassah. For three chapters Zephaniah has detailed the “day of the Lord,” a day when he would, according to chapter 3, “Pour out upon them [His] indignation, all [His] burning anger . . . all the earth shall be consumed.” The picture is bleak. It’s as though God announces that His storm of judgment is coming and His people stare at a sky swelling with rolling and thunderous clouds. And just before judgment bursts forth in power, a single ray of sunshine breaks through and shines down. Zephaniah says sadness and depression isn’t the order of the day for everybody. The sun of salvation is going to burst upon the earth because “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zeph. 3:17) Our God is a singing God!
Faithful singing then is little more than a mirror of the great God who sings over His people. Our singing God creates and commands His people, which leads to the second point.
2. Singing is a mark of obedience.
God not only creates His people, but commands His people and one command is that we sing. As best I can tell, there are some four hundred references to singing in Scripture and over fifty commands to sing. God’s salvation compels the commands of Zephaniah 3:14, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” Did you notice from where our singing is to come? ”Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” What matters most in singing is the state of our hearts. God is honored when our hearts sings unto Him in joyful humility and honesty.
This is why we sing, because it mirrors God is and is a mark of obedience. Said another way, “We sing because He sang first over us.”
WHAT SINGING DOES
Another question worth pursuing on the topic is, “What singing does singing actually do?” If we long for a culture of singing in our churches, what kind of culture are we longing for? Among the myriad of things singing does, I believe there are four worth particular mention.
Singing glorifies God.
Spirit-filled churches, according to Ephesians 5:19, are those that sing and make melody to the Lord with all their heart. The first function of singing is vertical, a harmonious declaration of all His wonderful works (1 Chron. 16:9).
One way we teach one another is by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). Singing is biblical and systematic theology set to meter and melody. Want to help your church understand sin has the two-fold effect of curse and corruption, and that Christ justifies and sanctifies? Have them sing good Mr. Toplady’s “Rock of Ages”:
“Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure”
The horizontal dimension of singing to “one another” (Eph. 5:19) means teaching and encouraging. They are closely related and functional synonyms, but it seems wise to distinguish them. Has a church member in your congregation recently lost a child through miscarriage? Help your church encourage them by singing “How Firm a Foundation”:
“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand”
I don’t have an explicit reference for this, but I am increasingly convinced few things fuel humility like faithful singing. It is so common, isn’t it, for Christians to think, “If the music is just right, or is to my particular stylistic liking, then I will be able to sing along.” But the vertical and horizontal dimensions of singing compel us to praise even when the music may not be to our personal preference. We see that glorifying God and encouraging one another is more important than my hope that the musical glory of “Enter Your Favorite Band Here” invades the congregation.
This is why, if our churches are ever to be singing churches, we pastors must give our people a grand view of our majestic God. God’s majesty, not man’s music, must ultimately compel our singing. What unites us together in life and worship is not stylistic preference, but God’s majesty as revealed in Christ. Personal preference in man’s music can never truly unite a church in the bonds of peace, but prioritization of God’s majesty will. Pursue the majesty of God more than the music of men and find your church become a singing church.
A SINGING-SHAPED CHURCH
I hope then it is clear why we pray for God to form us into “A Singing Church.”
We want to mirror God’s character, so we sing.
We want to be obedient to His word, so we sing.
We want to glorify God, so we sing.
We want to teach one another in truth, so we sing.
We want to encourage one another in the Spirit, so we sing.
We want to humble our hearts before God, so we sing.
By His power and for His glory, may He form us all into singing churches.
Some great thought from Keith Getty:
What are your goals as an artist and hymn writer?
“I’ve spent my life with twin goals. One is to try and let the word of Christ dwell richly when people meet together and sing. What we sing is as important, if not more important than, what we speak. And secondly, to try and craft a musical style that someone can carry for a lifetime. And the Lord is Lord of every form of art — pop art, high art, songs that last for a day, songs that you sing to your children, hymns sung around the world for 500 years. But I do believe the Bible places such a value on life and the extension of art that it’s important we strive to write and learn music that can be passed on for generations. Most people tend to have a passion for songs with rich theology or classical hymnody with high artistic contours.”
What is the role of the artist in the church?
“An artist and a pastor tend to think about things in slightly different ways that complement each other, and so I think that can help shake up a pastor and keep him energized, but it also breathes into and informs a church musician. On the flip side, they’re both control freaks. But a huge amount of honesty and strong communication can allow any two people to work together.”
What is the most important aspect of a hymn?
“Throughout Scripture when you see God’s people singing, they sing to God, and they sing together. At a pragmatic level, we need to write songs that are rich in vibrant truth, and write songs in which every musician accompanies the artist who called the congregation to worship. Every piece of artistry a worship leader has is given to lead the congregation in singing.
On a wider level, I think there’s a calling to a higher view of art in all things. If art is an extension of life, we need a generation of serious musicians with serious thoughts who commit their lives to artistry and take that as their service to God and his church.”
-Keith Getty, http://www.sbts.edu/blogs/2014/02/19/3-questions-with-keith-getty/
By Keith Getty
“My wife, Kristyn, and I recently returned from a tour where we had the privilege of sharing our music in cities across North America. As we do on our tours, we partnered with most of our concert sponsors to host a lunch and time of discussion with local pastors, worship leaders, and other church musicians.
In each of those leadership events, I posed the question, “What are the things you ask yourself on Monday morning, in reviewing Sunday’s services?” Generally, the responses centered around production values, stylistic issues, people management, pleasing the pastor, or finishing the service on time. I do not recall that any one asked, “How did the congregation sing?”
It seems curious that in a generation that has produced innumerable conferences, articles, blogs, and even university degree programs on “worship,” the topic of congregational singing hasn’t been raised more often. But even if we had been discussing congregational participation, would we know what goal we’re aiming to hit each week?
I do not pretend to be qualified to write a theological treatise on this particular subject. Congregational singing is a holy act, and as I organize my thoughts, I hear my old pastor, Alistair Begg, reminding me that in our song worship, we have to be spiritually alive (dead people don’t sing), spiritually assisted (through the enabling of the Holy Spirit), and spiritually active (committed to daily walking with the Lord).
I offer here some practical advice on strengthening our congregational singing, drawn from both our experience as musicians and also what we have seen and learned in our travels.
1. Begin with the pastor.
Look at any congregation not engaged in worship through singing and the most consistent correlation is a senior pastor equally as disengaged. Ultimately the buck stops with him in congregational worship.
Every pastor must be intimately involved in the language being placed in the congregation’s mouth, for that singing ultimately affects how they think, how they feel, how they pray, and how they live. The congregation should be treated as those who have been invited to a feast at the table of the King; don’t hand them junk food! C. S. Lewis believed singing completes our faith, explaining in his book Reflections on the Psalms, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” This is why I believe many of our pastoral heroes such as Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle, and Philip Schaaf produced hymn books in addition to preaching and teaching. Other leaders such as Horatius Bonar, Richard Baxter, and John Calvin wrote hymns themselves.
Pastors not only have a duty to be involved in preparing for the time of congregational singing, they also have a responsibility to personally model and demonstrate the importance of it. We need pastors who constantly delight in their congregation’s singing and the musicians who serve them and who also joyfully and authentically participate themselves.
Pastors, take up your duty in this act of worship called congregational singing. Worship leaders, pray for your pastor faithfully and do your part to develop a thriving relationship with him. The most influential worship leaders in history have almost always had close (though often tense) relationships with their pastors.
2. Sing great songs.
If congregational singing is a holy act, and if we are what we sing, then we can’t be lazy in selecting songs. We must sing great songs—songs that artfully exult Christ with deeply meaningful lyrics and melodies we can’t wait to sing. Better to have a small repertoire of great songs (that you will sing well) than a catalog full of songs recycled for sentimental reasons or chased after because they are the “latest” thing.
Writing or selecting great songs is not an exercise in lyrical propaganda or marketing. It is not merely laying scriptural truth alongside any melody. It is an art form that arrests our emotions and intellect in mysterious ways. Just as a master chef selects ingredients that are at the same time nutritious, aromatic, and flavorful, the selection of songs for congregational singing must excite at a number of levels.
Great songs have stood the test of time. They have been passed on to us from our fathers, and we should pass them along to our children. Assemble any Christian group, and practically everyone can join you in singing “Amazing Grace” confidently and passionately. We’re drawn to sing great music, much like we’re drawn to stand in awe of a beautiful painting.
There are great new songs—they breathe fresh air into our singing and help connect age-old truth with modern sounds. These are appropriate, too, though harder to find.
Recently I invited two unbelieving friends to a Christian event. The artists on stage played songs with interesting lyrics but awful melodies. I asked my friends what they thought about the concert. “These people obviously don’t take their subject matter very seriously,” one friend replied. Now, I know for a fact this is not true. But art ultimately expresses life, and low-quality songs do not reflect spirited, serious believers.
3. Cultivate a congregation-centered priority in those who lead.
From the individual who leads music, to the worship teams standing up front, to those of us who follow as members of the congregation, it’s vital to build a culture where everyone realizes our corporate responsibility before God and to each other is to sing together. Throughout Scripture, the command to sing is given to God’s people more than 400 times. Ephesians 5:19 instructs believers to address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Week after week, we are spiritually renewed, realigned, and sanctified by singing to the Lord and singing to each other as the body of Christ.
Sadly, some of the churches with the newest facilities and most forward-thinking pastors are weakened substantially by lackluster congregational singing. It is an awful witness for outsiders to watch believers so disinterested in singing to their Creator and Redeemer.
Many of our common challenges—the overly exuberant drummer, the diva-like background vocalist, the subversive choir member, or an unhealthy priority on performance—can be corrected when we teach and encourage those involved in our music to be excited about using their many rich and colorful gifts for the purpose of supporting the congregation. Every singer, instrumentalist, and choir member should share in facilitating the high calling of congregational singing.
4. Serve the congregation through musical excellence.
Scripture often commands us to make music that is both good and excellent. For example, Psalm 33 tells to both “shout for joy in the Lord” and also play our instruments “skillfully” (verse 3). This instruction is consistent with our calling as believers to work heartily at whatever we do, as for the Lord and not men (Colossians 3:23). The music need not be complex or style-specific, but we must take seriously our role in such holy activity. This leadership requires people who are trained and well-prepared. As with all work that involves creativity (whether preaching, mothering, or running a business), we should constantly seek to be fresh, interesting, and connected with our congregations. Listen to new music, arrangements, and sounds. Examine our heritage of liturgies for insight to ordering the song service. Reach across the aisle, meeting with leaders from different churches and denominations to learn about their music selections.
In scoring for films, the composer and performers use all of their musical excellence in service of the story. In similar fashion, the singers and musicians should bring to bear their musical excellence in service of the congregation. There is no dichotomy between musical excellence and congregational worship provided the excellence is given in service of the congregation.
5. Manage the congregation’s repertoire intentionally.
Having progressed in each of the areas above and putting them into regular practice in services, be intentional about what is sung and when. Don’t treat your library of congregational choices like selecting “shuffle” on you iPod. Instead, be intentional in ordering the service, heeding Eric Alexander’s caution that congregational praise begins with God and his glory, not man and his need. Ask why you are singing at a given point in the service, and be sure that the selection for that moment is appropriate. Also, learn from the rich heritage of liturgy and how it provides a pathway of ordering songs for a service.
And finally . . .
Why not in 2014 begin the Monday morning review by asking, “How did the congregation sing?” and, “How can we help them do it better?” Starting here, we may find that the other questions begin to resolve themselves.”
A classic from Jeremy Pierce:
Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.
1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.
3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.
4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God.” This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?
5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.
6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g., a desperate longing for God), then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.
7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.
8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.
9. Finally, there are those songs that have like four or five lines that people just either have to repeat over and over again or just sing briefly and never get a chance to digest.
At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms.
Oh, wait. . . .
-Jeremy Pierce, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2014/02/11/annoying-things-in-worship-songs/
Check out this great article for us young worship leaders from veteran Christ-worshipper Bob Kauflin. He encourages us to:
1. Live in the good of the gospel.
2. Know the God of the Bible.
3. Be the best musician you can be.
Read the details here: http://www.worshipmatters.com/2013/11/20/whats-a-young-worship-leader-to-do/
What a great reminder, so true! Knowledge fuels worship. It’s only when we know that we can truly feel. We have no reason to praise apart from who God is and what He has done.