How to Write Christian Praise and Worship Songs: writing guide
Christian praise and worship songs are almost two a penny these days. It seems that in every congregation there is someone who thinks that they are the next great writer, and that the rest of the Christian world is going to demand to sing their songs.
Ok, so it isn’t really as bad as all that, but there are some people who dream of so-called ‘greatness’, and it doesn’t matter if they are all pious about it and use words like ‘if the Lord wills’ and the like, because in our darker moments those of us who are song writers can’t help but get a little thrill each time someone says that they have heard of, even sung, one of your compositions. And the little fantasy demon jumps in and gets in the way of any clear thought and the holiness required to write something that is going to inspire people to life-long, or at least the next week, worship in their daily walk with Jesus.
The news is that actually dreaming of writing is easy. Writing a so-so song is also easy. Throw in one of about a dozen words with and easy tune and you have something that most people create. For example:
I love you Jesus
You died for me
Oh, oh oh
And that’s about it. And whilst it is true, it has several flaws, not least of which is that it is pretty boring. It doesn't actually say anything. It’s one of those Christian worship songs that Matt Redman once said of:
“People tell me all the while that God has given them a song…I resist saying that it is because God didn’t want it anymore.”
I personally think that a lot of people rely too heavily on the tune or even the accompaniment carrying the song successfully, and forget that what actually changes people and helps them to grow as Christians are the words which get into their heads and they say over and over. So goes Kylie Minogue’s song, ‘can’t get you out of my head.’
And now it will be running round your head!
Successful pop songs get stuck in the head because of the tune, backing and rhythm, and the fact that by the end of the song you know the main hook. For the Christian song writer that hook must be the key piece of doctrine that you are trying to communicate.
So how can you create a much richer texture for your praise and worship music and songs? What follows is a simple outline of how to do it, and how I have done it for a few years.
- Don’t write because you want other people to sing it because you are proud. If this is you, forget it. Walk away. Better still discuss the problem with a mature Christian. Until you get over this problem you won’t write a song that is successful, simply because you are chasing after being heard. That is pride.
- Write a song that you want other people to sing. Yes I know it contradicts number one, but if you are writing a song for worship then other people should want to sing it, and be able to do so easily! But keep focussed that you should want people to sing it without ever knowing it was you who wrote it. Just that people should find they are able to worship God better by singing something you have penned is, or should be, enough.
- Read scripture. Read books about scripture. Read stuff that challenges your thinking. Preach if possible. All these things will help you to write materials that include sound doctrine which will fulfil the purpose of music in worship, getting closer to God. If you have the full range of Christian witness at your fingertips, the chances are you will write something that is much stronger. The practice of preaching will help you to hone your words.
- Read poetry and other song lyrics. See how people show, not tell, their ideas and stories. The emotion comes out from it. The rhythm of the words are important too. Listen to contemporary music, especially ones that deal with life. I personally enjoy listening to country, folk, UK folk, U2 and Martyn Joseph simply because the lyric writing is emotive and tells stories, as well as being musically good. Recently I have also been listening to hip hop since the lyrics there are superb and rhyming and word rhythm work often outstanding and inspirational. Write down anything that strikes you as powerful, and spend a couple of hours each week reading through your notes.
- Talking of taking notes, ALWAYS carry a note pad around with you, and preferably something to record with. IPods are brilliant, and all you need is a mic enabled headphone and access some recording software or other through the app store. You can even get multi-track software! I digress. Basically you need some way of recording quickly notes and ideas that you have at awkward moments so that you can come back to them.
- When you write, come up with the main idea you want to convey. Can you make it any more focussed? Hone it down to just a few words, then see if you can express it in just one line. Try different combinations of words and really work on it until it is the best line that you can think of which has powerful emotive words, and is short enough to stick in the mind. Then, and only then, move onto the chorus. The chorus is the window dressing for that one line, the hook, which is your main point, the key note of doctrine you want to express. The chorus should be as short as possible, use short-ish lines. Repeating lines is fine, as long as the tension is resolved by the last line which is the hook. Again, work on it until it is the best that you can come up with.
- Now write the verses. The verses should basically set up the chorus. The chorus should answer the verses. If you can, write stories, don’t just express something, because that is the job of the chorus. You use the verses to create the emotional backdrop that is emotive of the singers’ experience (that is your congregation.) It has to connect. Look at the psalms, many of them recall the Exodus tradition and the faithfulness of God, even when the psalmist is moaning that God isn’t doing anything much.
- Now work on your verses. Make sure there is a flow. Is each line well written in terms of rhythm, rhyme schemes, internal lines, internal rhyme schemes, and wider schemes? Then look as well at each individual WORD! Is each word the most powerful you can think of? Use red ink to cross out words like thing, Lord, love, really and other weak filler words, or words that are overused. And don’t think that there is anything like too much work. You might spend a month OR MORE working on it, night after night, getting it perfect, until finally you release your new song to a discerning audience to join in with.
- Last point about the lyric. If you can, try to think more community and congregationally rather than personally. So, ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. And picture in mind your own congregation singing the song rather than wider afield. And if works, only then send it off for evaluation professionally.
How to Write the Melody for a Christian Praise and Worship Song
The tune is often hardest, and if possible I collaborate as it keeps me from trite tunes. Here are some tips.
- Use the rhythm that already exists in the lyric. Read a line in various ways. Say it over and over until something sound really natural, then pay attention to the sound of your voice. Listen to the natural pitch of your voice and turn that into the melody line. Take the Kylie Minogue song from earlier, the key line of ‘can’t get you out of my head’ falls naturally as a song line either spoken or sung. The ‘tune’ is the same, either sung or spoken. The difference between song and spoken word is deliberacy rather than something really different, and if you have worked really hard on that lyric you will already be working towards something. And here’s the bad news, you might find yourself changing the lyric as the melody evolves and you will have to go back to the lyric writing stage. It’s called a re-write!
- Once you find a really cool hook melody, start to mess with it. Invert it, play it backwards, try some unusual chord shapes with it. And please be creative! make it work! Don’t force anything to fit lyrically or melodically.
- Once you have something reasonable, try out some chord sequences. Throw in interesting chords too to see what happens. Sing the song slow, and fast. Which is best? Too many words per line will make it hard for a congregation to sing. Too few may bore them. They need to be inspired! They need to find the hook, remember the hook, and go away singing the hook even if they forget the song. And the tune should stick in their heads.
- Christian praise and worship music should also reflect what the words are saying. I cringe constantly at those lyrics that say we are climbing up, and the melody goes down! Or those songs which talk about confession and are written in major keys. Ughh!
I realise that all of this is quite complex, and there are so many different genres of music in the Christian world from gospel praise and worship songs to rap that I can’t possibly comment on all of them. I also think that I have skipped over much material. I would like to invite you to make comments, ask for clarification, and perhaps anything that you are struggling with.
As a final word let me just say that the best critics of your songs are not your family and friends, it is the people who don’t know you. Invite harshness, and practice always. And more than that......
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