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How to pick a good church song

There are so many things that make a good song what it is. And so many things that can ruin it. Some of these things can be analysed and some can’t. Here’s my best attempt to summarise the things that can.

When I write a church song, I have two things that I want to be able to say about it when it is finished – it works, and it helps.

1. It works

A good song writer will spend a lot of time crafting and editing a song until it really works. These are some things a worship songwriter might aim for.

• It is simple

How simple it needs to be depends a bit on your congregation and what they are used to, and how well the songs are led. Interestingly, many of the most enduring melodies have simple tunes and basic rhythms. You are aiming for a melody that is easily singable (after all, the singing is what it is all about!), and that has the right balance of interest and predictability. So make sure you sing it a lot before deciding if it is a keeper, rather than judging it by how good is sounds on the recording or at band rehearsal.

• It is within most people’s comfortable range.

The range also needs to be small (only just over an octave usually – I aim for A below middle C to the next C). Almost always the ideal key is not the one you hear on the recording. There are also lots of songs that rely on a chorus that is an octave higher than the verse. Most people would rather not sing the climax of the song like a chipmunk.

• The words roll off the tongue.

This is tricky, especially for fast songs. A songwriter needs to put a lot of effort into getting this right. Some songs with tongue twisters will need to be sung slower than the ideal tempo so that people don’t keep tripping up and to have room to breathe.

• The words and music follow the natural rhythms and emphases of speech.

Again, the writer needs to work hard to get this right. For example, you can’t have words with the em-pha-ses on the wrong syll-a-bles. And it can sound artificial to rearrange a sentence, (for example, to get the rhyming word at the end, or the right number of syllables in the right places), if this is not the normal way of speaking. And so on.

• It doesn’t make people cringe

Sadly, one cringe can ruin a whole song for people, as can one mistake. I won’t give examples, but make sure you run it by some people first. What is beautiful to you might be nauseating to someone else.

• The words and music match each other

For example, you wouldn’t sing a song about loss in a boppy, upbeat style. The music should give the right emotional context for the words.

• It hangs together

It is difficult to say why some songs rock and others don’t, and of course people’s opinions vary. You can try and analyse it, but it’s just that some songs have a tempo, rhythm, melody, rhyme and groove that hang together better than others. It often becomes clearer which songs these are simply by listening to them and singing them over and over. The strong ones tend to survive. Generally, it is a good idea to work this out before introducing them, rather than letting the congregation be the guinea pigs. It takes a fair bit of effort to learn a new song, so you want to get it right.

2. It helps

So a song might tick all the boxes. But that isn’t enough. Often unfortunately, in order to tick all the boxes, the song doesn’t actually end up saying much at all. You don’t want your song to be a bunch of vaguely true statements, strung together like a series of bumper stickers that don’t have much relation to each other. People may have enjoyed singing it, but are they better off for having sung it?

At the other end of the spectrum, in order to give a song a richer content, a writer might be tempted to say everything the bible has said about a particular topic. A more effective song will concentrate on one idea and draw out the implications and appropriate responses to that idea. Songs need to be theologically rich, without being overly wordy. No small task.

Of course, it goes without saying that a Christian song has to be true. But it has to be more than just true. It needs to do something. It needs to make us thankful, or open our eyes, or inspire us, or motivate us, or unite us. In order to do this, songs need to be focused, not vague. Ask yourself the question, “Can I say exactly what this song is about?”

Great songs express the old truths of the gospel in a new or fresh way. They aren’t merely doctrinal statements. They express the emotion that should well up inside us because of the glorious things that the Lord has done. They say what you wanted to say but couldn’t find the words.

More often though, they say what the last guy said, who vaguely copied the one before that. How often can we “Wait on the Lord as we rise up on eagle’s wings…” before it loses every last ounce of meaning from the metaphor? It no longer reminds you of the truth, it just reminds you of the last song that said it.

What we want is the one truth, expressed in many different ways. What we often end up with instead is quite different meanings, all expressed in much the same way. The gospel is a multi-faceted diamond. The bible talks about the one true gospel in so many different ways, and it expresses so many different responses to it as well. Choose songs that express the full breadth of the Word of God.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,… as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God”.

© 2013 Liz Gordon

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