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So You Wanna Be a Songwriter?

As noted elsewhere on this site, I've written about 1000 songs. That doesn't make me an expert, of course. And with regard to musical composition, I wouldn't dream of attempting to provide instruction. However, over the years I think I have reflected enough and garnered enough experience that I may have something of value to say with regard to lyrics.

Please understand that what follows consists of very informal thoughts. Were I to write a real article on this subject, I would attempt to cover more bases and be more balanced. As it is, I am satisfied to write concerning a few things that stick out for me.

This piece may well grow as I think of things to add. For now, I am going to comment on two areas: banishing banality through reading, and approaching praise and worship songwriting. The latter point, I must concede, virtually grew into an essay itself.

Carvin electric guitar photo

Banish Banality

More than one person has commented to the effect that I have a way with words, not least with respect to my song lyrics. I attribute that to one thing: I have always been a reader.

We live in a semi-literate culture. While most people have some degree of literacy, it is on a low level. And even those who can function well enough with everyday "task reading" are rarely readers of good literature. Bestselling books tend to be thrillers or romance stories with relatively little literary value.

I have written elsewhere about the need to view music (as all else) as something done for the glory of God. I do not believe God is glorified by banality.

Most songwriters, I suspect, would affirm that they wish to be fresh in their writing. They don't want to write drab cliches. And yet, the evidence suggests that there is an awful lot of material out there that consists of drab cliches.

I suggest that if you do not love to read, you will never be a genuinely good lyricist. Quite obviously, words are the "stuff" from which your lyrics are made. If you are to use them well, you will need to love them. And no lover of words and the delightful potential of their expression will fail to be a reader.

And I mean a reader. Quantity is important, but quality is even more important. Reading everything by Tom Clancy may help your lyrical abilities to some degree, I suppose. But reading the classics will be of immensely more benefit. Read Jane Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Graham Greene and the other masters of both human psychology and human language.

And read the Bible. This should be a no-brainer for Christian songwriters, in any case, but if content is any indication, a lot of Christian songwriters do not know the Bible very well.

At this point, however, I am not even speaking primarily about content; I am referring to the Bible as the shaper of the English language. If you read the best literature in the English language, you will find that biblical idioms and even biblical concepts find their way into a remarkable number of crannies. This is even true in the best secular music. The richest, most allusive and poetic secular songs have an amazing propensity to draw from biblical language and themes. If you want to write quality Christian lyrics, you need to be familiar with Scripture - preferably a version that does not drown out the rich poetry and prose of the original language; find a reasonably-literal translation and get to know it inside and out.

Praise and Worship Songwriting

Only a very small part of my musical corpus is "praise and worship;" I suspect that even less would be recognized as such by most people. I have some experience with praise and worship songwriting; I have more experience, however, with reflecting upon matters of who God is and how songs of worship relate to that.

I am going to say some things here that are bound to be controversial for many people, but I hope you hold on tight and reflect upon what I have to say, because I have attempted to provide biblical evidence and its fruit, not simply personal preferences.

Almost everyone thinks that they can write a good praise song. To be blunt from the beginning: not so. And I will add that some very able songwriters who would be best equipped to write good praise songs end up writing bad ones, due to a misconception of what praise is about.

Please do not write praise and worship songs if any of the following is true of you:

  • You don't know the biblical Psalms inside and out.
  • You think that praise and worship should be written "by feel," with as little thought as possible.
  • You think that the primary purpose of worship is to sing love songs to Jesus or God.
  • You think that older hymns (pre-1800s) "do not connect" or "are irrelevant." (I'm not talking here about archaic terminology; I'm talking about concept and content.)

Those appear to be brash and bold statements. Now let me explain why I made them.

Heart and head

There are certain very common current assumptions regarding worship, and those assumptions inevitably "drive" the creation of praise and worship music. Perhaps at the center of these assumptions is the notion that "worship" is primarily an emotional expression of devotion to God. Although it is true that sometimes the term emotion itself is downplayed, ask yourself how many songs speak of what the worshipper "feels." There can scarcely be any doubt that contemporary praise and worship music is heavily geared to be oriented to "feelings."

Now, I need to say immediately that singing God's praises needs to be heartfelt. That is not in question. But the assumption that must be dealt with regards the particular place of emotion in this worship, and how it relates to content. In earlier generations, heart and head were distinguished, but they were not set at intrinsic odds. Jesus, after all, said that the great commandment was "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength," not "Love the Lord your God with all your feelings." In fact, in Scripture, "heart" and "mind" overlap heavily; the heart is considered to include the powers of thought.

The biblical Psalter as measuring-stick

How are we to evaluate the quality and approach of worship lyrics? I suggested above that if you do not know the biblical Psalms inside and out, you shouldn't be writing worship songs. God Himself has given us an entire songbook. I do not suggest that this songbook as written is absolutely sufficient. Some Christians sincerely believe that only inspired Psalms should be sung in church; I do not share that view. One key reason I believe we need to go beyond the Psalter is that it was written prior to the full disclosure of Jesus Christ, and therefore of the Trinity. The Psalter is anticipatory in character, and thus is not the last word in Christian worship.

Having said that, the Psalter nonetheless is the first word, and just as the New Testament revelation is governed by the trajectory and shape determined by the Old Testament revelation as a whole, such that the Old Testament is an absolutely indispensable guide to understanding who Jesus is and knowing who God is, so too on a narrower level, the Psalter is an absolutely indispensable guide to worshipping faithfully and biblically. Christian worship should "eschatologize" what the Psalms say, in the sense that it should reinterpret the Psalms in the light of the Christ who has come. But Christian worship cannot simply move beyond the Psalms or dispense with them. Generally speaking, Christian worship that does not share the essential posture, concerns and characteristics that mark the Psalms is inadequate and sub-biblical.

Now, the Psalms have indeed "caught on" with a lot of contemporary praise and worship music. Unfortunately, however, for the most part they have been imbibed extremely selectively - a couple of lines here or there, divorced from their original contexts. Why is that? I suggest it is because in our current understanding of "worship," the Psalms as a whole do not make sense. We have little sense of what we are to do with something like "Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back. Let them be as the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up" (Psalm 129.5-6 NKJV, picked at random).

A careful study of the Psalms (which I cannot provide here, obviously) will unearth a powerful variety of mutual encouragement, laments, celebrations of God's faithful character as displayed in His specific mighty acts, and even - gasp! - psalms of imprecation against the enemies of God and His people.. (A variety, I might add, that would undoubtedly help rescue us from the banality I was haranguing about earlier.) The Psalms are not expressions of emotion virtually devoid of content, although they most certainly are emotive - powerfully so. The fact that so much of our "praise" resembles the Psalms to so little degree is a telling indictment upon our sensibilities and priorities.

While many of our contemporary "worship" songs are intended to be sung repeatedly - dare I say interminably - as a way of generating sufficient emotion, the Psalms never do that. The most repetitive Psalm in the entire Psalter (Psalm 136) has a line that occurs 26 times ("For His mercy endures forever") - as a response to the unique content of every other line. In other words, it is never repeated consecutively even once, and the Psalm as a whole has a great deal of breadth and depth in its variety of content.

"We worship You"

One specific thing I note that is different between much contemporary praise and worship and the Psalms is that while lines such as "We praise You" / "We bless You" / "We worship You" are virtually omnipresent in our music, they are minimal in the Psalms, and play a very narrow role when they do appear.

When the "praise" Psalms (as opposed to the lament Psalms) are actually directed toward God Himself, they generally engage in that thanksgiving and praise by speaking of specific things for which God is praiseworthy ("The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were afraid; the depths also trembled;" Ps 77.16). In other words: usually, they praise Him ("You have done X"), rather than telling Him they are praising Him ("We praise You").

Only very rarely do we find something different, and when it occurs, it immediately passes on to actual praise. For example, David opens Psalm 108 by saying that he will sing and give praise: "I will praise You, O Yahweh, among the peoples, and I will sing praises to You among the nations" (Ps 108.3). And then he moves on: "For Your mercy is great above the heavens, and Your truth reaches to the clouds" (108.4).

This observation gives us a bit of a window into what is wrong with so much of our current worship approach: it is focused upon what we are doing ("I am/we are praising, I am/we are loving" etc). Whereas David's declaration in Psalm 108 is a confession of determined faith ("I will sing praise"), our constant "I just praise You" ends up being an inwardly-turned worship of our feelings (not to put too fine a point on it!).

"Sweet nothings" versus proclamation of glory

Another fascinating thing about the Psalms lies in the predominantly unexpected direction of the words that glorify God. Given our (at least implicit) notion that worship is "love songs to God/Jesus," it is interesting to note that the Psalms praise God by speaking of Him far more than by speaking to Him. This is a rather large claim that I cannot demonstrate here, but I urge you to go through the Psalter carefully and see if this is not indeed the case. You will find that third-person speech about God outweighs direct address to Him very heavily.

Now, unless we are to make the (quite impossible) assumption that the Psalms really do not intend to be about praise and worship, this surprising observation suggests that worship is far more fundamentally about proclamation than about the sort of expression of personal warmth toward God that has come to dominate contemporary worship. The way that God is worshipped and praised is by announcing and celebrating who He is and what He has done - whether that praise is directed toward Him in the second person (occasional), or speaks of Him exaltedly in the third person (predominant).

A remarkable example of this is Psalm 96, which opens by calling upon all the earth to "sing to Yahweh a new song." From that, one would expect a second-person address to the God of Israel. But as it turns out, singing "to" Yahweh means to "declare His glory," and there is not a line of second-person address to God in the entire Psalm.

Instead, the Psalm speaks in the third person, depicting Yahweh's greatness ("Yahweh is great and greatly to be praised; He is to be feared above all gods"), His deeds ("Yahweh made the heavens"), and His faithfulness which guarantees the hope of the whole earth ("Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad. . . For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth; He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth").

Biblically, then, singing to Yahweh does not refer to addressing Him directly (although that is good, and there are frequent examples of it). Rather, singing to Yahweh refers to singing unto Him: in His honour, exalting Him, His glory, His deeds, His character. In short, it is fundamentally proclamation.

This is illustrated quite clearly by Paul: he says we are to be "speaking to one another [i.e. addressing one another] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord [i.e. unto Him, in His honour and for His glory]" (Eph 5.19). Similarly, in another letter he writes, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him" (Col 3.16-17). That is how the apostle himself assesses both the Psalms themselves and the meaning of singing in corporate worship: as proclamation to one another, for the glory of the name of Jesus and as an expression of gratitude to God.

Recover hymnody

I suggested earlier that those who consider the historic (pre-1800s) hymns "irrelevant" should not be undertaking the task of writing praise songs. This is related to everything I have said to this point regarding the Psalms. The older hymns, prior to those written during and after the Second Great Awakening, were by and large written out of a context in which Christian worship was shaped by the Psalter. In fact, for a long time, versifications or chants of the Psalms outnumbered humanly-penned hymns across a broad spectrum of the Christian Church.

I suggest that the reasons why we tend to think these hymns no longer connect are largely poor reasons. As suggested above, our own songs are no longer shaped by the Psalter, and therefore, we have little appreciation for hymns that are governed to a great degree by that norm. Similarly, the older hymns strike us as "too doctrinal," and we have bought into the notion that worship is about feelings, not doctrine. But again, the Psalter is a great repository of songs dedicated to expounding upon God's character and His acts - in other words, doctrine.

The other flagrant problem is that as evangelicals, in particular, we have little sense of Church history. We do not appropriate and appreciate Jesus' promise that He would build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail, as a promise that would traverse the generations. We are weighted with an unstated and unwarranted assumption that we are more spiritual and more biblical than our forefathers. This chronological snobbery - or rather, chronological self-righteousness - hinders us from learning from the wisdom of the ages and digging deeply into the wealth of treasures buried in the heritage of the Church.

I suggest that if you detest or dismiss the Church's historic hymnody, your own contribution to the Church's music will not be worth preserving. While we should not idolize any period in the Church's past, our current affliction (in line with our culture) runs very much in the other direction: we worship novelty and innovation. In times past, building upon the heritage that had been passed down was the primary approach to kingdom labour. We need to relearn that humility and wisdom. Those who refuse to stand on the shoulders of giants will remain pygmies.

Musical appropriateness

As I indicated at the outset, I have focused throughout this little harangue upon the issue of lyrics, and I have no intention to overstep my limitations by presuming to advise the budding songwriter on how to compose good tunes. I do wish, in closing, however, to apply some of what has been said above to the matter of the musical side of the songwriting equation.

I am not, as many others who hammer on psalms and hymns, of the opinion that all contemporary forms of music are bad, and that there is something intrinsically wicked about the genre of rock music, in particular. I believe that people who think that way are rather naive in their understanding of music.

But there is an even more common naivete that needs to be addressed, and that is the frequent assumption that the matter of music is indifferent, that any genre and any melody is equally capable of transmitting any message. The result is that we have "worship music" that ranges all over the spectrum musically.

I say that this notion is naive. And this criticism is not simply a sweeping statement that no form of rock music is suitable for worship, period. That would be rather reckless, and I am not intent on going down a road that is likely to be indemonstrable or at best inconclusive.

Instead of taking that path, I want to suggest that even within a given genre, a great deal of music would not be appropriately suited to a given song. And yes, there are old hymn texts that have been paired to ill-suited tunes. (I suspect that this is usually not the fault of the composer, who may not have intended a tune for a given text.) For example, think how incongruous it would be to pair one of the laments of the Psalms to a bouncy, infectious melody. The tune would belie the words.

The lesson in this is that good worship songwriters must be artistically competent enough to know how to wed setting (i.e. the gathered people of God in His presence), text (the song's lyrics), and music. Worship music is not something to throw together; it is a highly demanding task - arguably, more challenging than any other task a composer may undertake.

Above, I have argued that the purpose of worship music is not to "warm us up to feel good" through low-content repetition. Worship is not an exercise that is centered upon how we feel. More than anything else, it is a corporate expression by God's people of God's mighty acts and faithful character (in its many dimensions). I do not intend here to say what genres are suitable to accomplish that purpose, but I simply want to stress that, music being what it is, how we conceive of worship affects the sort of music we compose for it. To deny that is naive, unartistic, and will result in poorly-conceived songs and impoverished assemblies of God's people.

Therefore, for the sake of the glory of God, and for the sake of the building up of His people, let us be sure to educate ourselves musically - not simply how to compose and perform, but how to understand the way in which music correlates with its purpose and lyrical content.

And if we are not ready to do that - please, for the sake of the Church and the glory of God, let's leave the composition of music for worship in the hands of others who are more capable, more disciplined, and have better internalized the holy Scriptures.