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TEACHING: How to Write a Really Good Worship Song

ExternalLink_worship-song-writing TEACHING: How to Write a Really Good Worship Song

Awhile ago I wrote an article titled “How To Write A Really Mediocre Worship Song.” It was a tongue in cheek examination of good song-writing in reverse. I received many emails with many different takes on what I’d written. Some were offended. Some were really, really offended (Perhaps they were spectacularly successful at writing mediocre songs and didn’t like me giving the secrets away.) Others laughed with me, and maybe at me… I don’t know.

At the recent Christian Musician’s Summit I taught a class on songwriting. The response was good. The class seemed to be paying attention, taking notes and all. They were actually taking this seriously. So, I’d like to make up for my past sins and give you some serious, straightforward songwriting tips.

Number One- Say One Thing. If you are writing a song about mercy, don’t introduce the subject of love; save that for another song. If your lyrics speak about the goodness of God, don’t speak about impending judgment. Stick tightly to your subject. Wrap your words like skin around it.

I wrote a worship song called “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified.” There are only five notes to the melody of the chorus and only seven words in the lyric. It is a simple prayer. Had I also talked about the power of God, or His great love, I would have diminished the power of the song. I am of the opinion that when you say two things in a song, you cut the power of the song in half. Just like in prose or public speaking, a powerful message is a focused message. Keep it simple. Say one thing.

Number Two – Say it Simply. Too many words spoil the soup. Beginning songwriters can suffer from the misconception that a sophisticated song needs more words. On the contrary, the very best, most sophisticated lyrics have been pared down to the absolute bare minimum. Examples of this are easy to find in pop music- “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” That’s The Way, Uh-huh, Uh-huh, I Like It,” anything by Britney Spears- but don’t think that these are simple only because they’re mindless. One of my favorite songs, “Lush Life,” was written by Billy Strayhorn when he was sixteen years old. It has wonderfully interesting chord changes and a great melody, and the lyric is exquisite perfection; simple and to the point. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus is another good example.

It is much harder to write a simple song than it is to write a complex one. Simple songs take work. Inspiration must give way to craft. You start with a great idea. The lyric and the melody seem to fit well together. You write loads of words over an evolving chord progression. You fill up a couple of pages with ideas. Now you must carve away at it until there is nothing left but what belongs. You may have to omit lyrics you really like. Don’t worry. You still have the lyrics. Save them. But if it doesn’t fit the One Thing you are writing about in this song, be ruthless and throw them out.

I have a song called “Nails In The Hands Of A Carpenter” that I have written three times. That is, I have three completely different versions of the same song. The first two are okay. I might use the lyrics another time, but they did not communicate what I was trying to say. The first verse of the first version went like this;

This old house was falling down
Sorry and sinking, built on shaky ground
Too many years of never enough
Not much to look at, not much to love
Then a carpenter came and said “I love this old house
And I’d like to make it my own”
So He bought it and moved it to solid ground
And with His own hands He made this house His home
(chorus) Nails in the hands of a carpenter…

Not a bad lyric, but as I read it I realized that this was a song about a house, NOT about nails in the carpenter’s hands. So I wrote version #2;

Wouldn’t you know it was nails
They put in the hands of the carpenter
And wouldn’t you know that the wood of the cross
And the hammer they used would cause Him such loss
(chorus) Nails in the hands of a carpenter…

Closer, but it lacked any wit. The title has a bit of immediate, joyful word-play about it that this lyric just did not have. So onto another idea. These two had taken nearly six years to write, mostly because I had to let each idea fade before I could start on the next one. Finally, I had an idea for version #3;

It wasn’t a pen in the hands of a poet that caused my heart to sing
It wasn’t a brush in the hands of a painter that drew me to the King
And it wasn’t a sword in the hands of a soldier that set my spirit free
It was greater than these, it was nails in the hands of a carpenter

It wasn’t a coin in the hands of a merchant that purchased me with gold
It wasn’t a sceptre in the courts of a king that bid me come so bold
It wasn’t a net in the hands of a fisher that caught my floundering soul
It was greater than these, it was nails in the hands of a carpenter

(bridge) Oh the wood of the cross and the hammer they used
Were tools of the carpenter’s trade
And when they put the nails in His hands that day
It meant my debt was paid

It wasn’t the words of a thundering prophet that washed me like the rain
It wasn’t the gifts of three wandering wise men that turned my loss to gain
It wasn’t the touch of the hands of a surgeon that eased my spirit’s pain
It was greater than these, it was nails in the hands of a carpenter
And if you believe, you’re so thankful for nails in the hands
Nails in the hands of a carpenter

This after six years. But I finally had something that pleased me. I am vain enough to want to point out the little word-plays- “brush…painter…drew”, “net…fisher…floundering sole”, “thundering prophet…rain.” I had so many other ideas that never made it to the song. You will, too. Be ruthless with your own words.

Number Three- No Explanation Needed. Often when I am critiquing a lyric for a song-writer, they will say something like, “Well, what I meant by that was…” or “I had this experience where…” or “God was taking me through this lesson and…”… If your lyric needs explaining, it’s not a good lyric. Period. This is not to say that your lyric may not have a deeper meaning if the listener knows the circumstances of its creation. There are many very cool songs that are even cooler to the ones that have the inside story. “Martha, My Dear” by Paul McCartney was written about his dog. That fact was not noted in the liner notes, but when you know it, the lyrics have a secondary meaning that’s pretty funny. However, the song stands on it’s own without explanation. Hopefully, more people will hear your song than you would have time to explain it to. Let the lyric speak for itself. If it doesn’t, write one that does.

Number Four- Make Your Lyrics Speakable. Some songs sound like Yoda wrote them; “To the Lord I am listening…”, “Our voices now we raise…” While you are writing the lyric, speak it to make sure it lays well. Speak it in the rhythm of the melody to make sure the emphasis of the melody is falling in the same place that the emphasis of the sentence should be. As an example, you can give the above lyric several different meanings simply by the emphasis of your melody;
to the LORD I am listening (other voices crowd my head, but I am listening to GOD)
to the Lord I am listening (emphasis on “I”) (others may not, but I will hear Him)
to the Lord I AM listening (I wasn’t paying attention before, but now I am)

Make sure your melody supports the One Thing your lyric is about. Remember also that songs are not just poems set to music. Most poems must be altered, even if only slightly, to conform them to a workable, singable melody.

Number Five- Every Song Needs An Audience. This is very important. Perhaps I should have made it number two or three. Try to determine as soon in the song-writing process who the audience is for this song. Are you writing to yourself, God, the Church, an unbeliever (individual), unbelievers (plural), a wayward Christian, your wife, a lost loved one? Once you know the audience, STICK TO THAT AUDIENCE! Do NOT change audiences in the middle of the song. Unfortunately, there are many examples of audience-changing in Christian songs, some quite popular worship songs among them. (Note: a popular song is not necessarily a well written song.) If your song is directed to God, then continue talking to God in your song from first to last. Just like in conversation, you don’t start talking to a second person in the middle of a sentence or paragraph.

If the verse is directed to your dog, the chorus should be to your dog, too. Your dog needs to hear what you have to say. If your verse is to your dog and your chorus is to me, I could draw negative implications about your intentions (and I won’t buy the album.) Speak to one audience.

Number Six- One Metaphor At A Time. This should be obvious, but apparently, it is not. When I wrote in my “Mediocre Song” article about the “hand of God raining down on me,” I was attempting humor. To some, this is a perfectly acceptable phrase. They couldn’t understand my complaint. To me, though, this is worse than cats and dogs. Rain belongs in one verse, the hand of God in another. When you write, imagine a situation. See a room, a field, a temple, the Holy of Holies. See yourself in the place. See your posture; are you kneeling, standing, sitting, walking or lying prostrate? Let your lyric conform to your imagined place, circumstance and posture. This will help you communicate more precisely and will make your lyric more powerful.

Number Seven- Rewrite. Some people are loathe to rewrite because they say that God gave them the song and, therefore, it is not to be changed. Allow me to insert some terrible logic here. If God gave you the song- and it is His song- then don’t copyright it, control it and profit by it. It’s not yours. Don’t protect it from change (“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord”). If it’s God’s song, it’s God’s song, not yours. Let God handle it. I am inclined to believe that God gives gifts of creativity, not songs, to people. If that is true, then your gift will always need perfecting and so will the produce of your gift. Rewrite your songs until you cannot think of anything else you can or should change in it.

I wrote a song called “Here Am I (Send Me To The Nations).” It came to me just as I was stepping out onto the stage at a youth conference in Hamilton, Ontario in the mid-Eighties. It was an appropriate message for the people there that night so I sang it. Years later, the fellow who did sound at the conference sent me a Christmas gift; the original cassette recording of that song from the night of its birth. I was struck by how much the song had changed from that first rendition to the finished version. I don’t even remember changing it, but I did. And it’s a better song for it. Rewrite ruthlessly. If you don’t criticize your song, there is a silent public who will. One more note on this point; don’t believe ANY of your good friends or family who tell you your song is great just the way it is. They’re lying because they love you. Let a dispassionate person hear it. Let someone who doesn’t like you hear it. They’ll tell you the truth.

Number Eight- Your Hook Is Your Title. Again, this should be obvious. When people refer to your song, they are going to describe it by the most obvious, memorable line from it. You should, too. If your hook is a series of grunts and whoops, call your song “The Grunting, Whooping Song.” I wrote a song for my Dad shortly after he died called “One Of These Days.” In the chorus there is a sing-along “Hey, Ho, Hey, Ho” that is quite moving to do in concert. That’s the part that sticks with the audience. People call it “The Hey Ho Song.” I do, too…now.

Number Nine- Read. If you want to increase your skill with words, read more. An eighty year old woman told me last weekend in Ohio that she remembers her husband having read only three books in 52 years of marriage. It may not have affected his life and job too much, but a habit of not reading is death to a writer. You must read the way other people use words. It will broaden your understanding of the language. Read good writers. Magazines and comics don’t count here. Most recent books in the Christian market are not that well written, either. Choose wisely. Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor are good starting points. If you think that you’ll simply ignore this point, you are doing yourself a disservice and limiting your growth. Read the Bible. I am sometimes appalled at the lack of understanding many Christian musicians have of the Bible. It will help your writing if you know your subject.

On a related note, listen to good music. Write practice songs in the same style as your favorite artists. This will help you understand their use of melody and chord structure.

Number Ten- My Pet Peeve; Songs That Motivate With Guilt. This is not so much a lyrical guideline as it is a suggestion for Christian writers. I produced an album recently for a fellow who had a song about the wonderful sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. In the bridge he wanted to introduce another theme, which was “if God did this for you, why won’t you do more for Him?” Of course, this broke rule number one right away. He was saying two things. But it also introduced the motivation of guilt. I tried to skirt the issue and suggest that he could write a better lyric, but he kept coming back with the same message in a new form. I finally just told him that I couldn’t agree with the point of the lyric. If Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, suffering the shame” went to the cross for joy, then how could I feel any differently about it than He did? If it was Jesus’ joy, then it’s my joy, too. God gives freely, without demanding return. That is the dangerous message of the cross. Nothing you do can or will make a difference in that. God gave for joy. That’s all. We give our lives to Him for the same joy. Don’t turn the Good News into Mostly Good News, Somewhat Good News or even Bad News. Resist the temptation to motivate with guilt. Let your audience come freely to the cross.

Rule Number Eleven- Timeless and Timely. Some songs are good for a year or two and then they’re gone and forgotten. Others are still here after hundreds of years. Both are okay. We need songs that are so timeless that they transcend culture and change by speaking of those things that do not change. We also need songs that tell us about the here and now. The rare songs do both. Christian songs by their very nature are attempting to communicate a timeless truth in a timely way. If you are writing for the whole world, make a song that will be appropriate everywhere. There are many American Christian songs that just don’t work in other countries. My son, who is a writer, was visiting an Asian Communist country and was attending a clandestine Christian gathering in a jungle clearing. He didn’t know the words of the song these oppressed Christians were passionately singing so he asked his guide to translate for him. They were not singing about how good it is to be in His presence, or how blessed we all are, or how God breaks every chain and sets us free. They were singing together “How long, O Lord, will you forget us?” Remember them when you write your song.

I hope these thoughts will help you write great songs. If you still write mediocre songs, take some comfort in knowing that every writer writes mediocre songs. The great ones come through perseverance and practice.

This article originally appeared in Christian Musician magazine. Bob Kilpatrick wrote the classic worship choruses “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified” and “Here Am I (Send Me To The Nations)”, has a daily devotional on the KLove radio network and has a new book coming out with Zondervan in 2010. His website is at bobkilpatrick.com

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