Copyright (c) 2010 Robert Hinchliffe
If you wish to know how to write worship songs there are three issues which it seems to me are at the heart of all good worship music. These are:
1) The actual quality of both the music and the poetry, – regardless of style or idiom.
2) The sentiments and/or theology on which the song is based.
3) The songs must be ‘sing-able’ by a congregation.
Let me look at these three points in a bit more detail.
We seem to be awash with new worship music at the present time and, frankly, a lot of it isn’t very good. It is an unfortunate fact that bad music in a popular idiom, whether it is Christian music or secular, is banal in the extreme. It comes over as lifeless, formulaic and boring. Having a clear set of criteria in your mind will guide you and teach you how to write worship songs which will be appreciated by the congregations who sing them.
We hear many worthy attempts by very sincere Christians who produce music for use in worship which, sadly, just doesn’t work. This is one of the reasons why the more traditionalist worshippers develop a bit of a ‘down’ on the contemporary repertoire, pointing to the wonderful hymns from the Victorian era and early 20th century tradition as examples of good church music. Unfortunately, they are overlooking the fact that it is only the good music from any age which survives and is carried forward to future generations. The quality floats to the top; the dross sinks without trace. This is the very nature of all art forms. It is the very nature of all worship music too. The fact is that there is no more poor music today than there has been at any other time in history, it’s just that we are aware of it because it is all around us.
The quality of the lyrics (the poetry) used in contemporary songs is also vital to its success or failure. The words must have a genuine theological basis or reflect a clear Christian sentiment. If you look at any of the great hymns of Charles Wesley you will find every verse, if, indeed, not every single line has a strong scriptural basis. Its message is crystal clear. You can’t do much better than to take Charles Wesley as an example if you are studying how to write worship songs. His idiom may be very different from the one which you are using, but the approach to writing is fundamentally the same.
The one criticism I often have of contemporary lyrics is that the writers try to cram far too many words into each line making the songs very difficult for congregations to sing. In songs written specifically for ‘performance’ in worship, this is less of an issue, so long as the listeners can actually follow what is being sung about.
Similarly, the melody of any worship song must be easy to sing. It must not go to the extremes of vocal range nor leap about wildly making pitching of the notes difficult for anyone other than a professional opera singer. The most popular and effective songs ever written, secular or Christian, have a simplicity which is both musically satisfying and easy to sing. The great songwriter, Burt Bacharach, was told by his composition teacher to always write music that people could go out singing. This is very good advice!
These are the key issues to consider if you wish to know how to write worship songs that congregations will enjoy singing. The bottom line for a contemporary worship song is that it has a good melody, clear, meaningful and uncluttered lyrics and is sing-able. If it doesn’t meet these criteria it is unlikely to survive beyond its first performance.