by Tommy Walker
For those of you who are just beginning your venture into songwriting, you might want to start with a process I'll refer to as modeling. Spend some time listening to what other songwriters have written-the songs that work, the songs that touch you. Find a simple song that you really like, then write a song of your own that uses the same elements. I'm not suggesting that you plagiarize someone else's material and present it as your own. I'm suggesting that you model your song on the song of an established writer as a method of developing your own songwriting skills.
Use modeling for all components of a song while you're learning to be a better writer. If you play an instrument, figure out the chords of the other song. You might concentrate on the chord progression of the chorus, or the chords in the verse and chorus. While you're working on your lyrics, you might use the same number of syllables found in each line of the phrases from the song being modeled. Again, you wouldn't present that song as being yours, but it's a great way to learn the craft. You're building your new song on the foundation of someone who wrote a really effective song.
Modeling works well for learning rhythms as well. Write songs over rhythm patterns of other recordings to acquire a feel for a variety of rhythms.
Once you begin to develop a sense of how songs are constructed you can take the process a little further. You've already figured out the chords of the song that you're modeling so begin to alter them. Then try singing a different melody along with the new chords.
Now find a favorite psalm or poem and choose a couple of verses that work for you. The song might not be a great one and it may sound too much like the original song but that's all right at this stage. You're simply trying to get the ball rolling. And I think you'll be surprised at how well you do if you don't put any pressure on yourself to write something awesome the first few times out of the gate.
Mourning Into Dancing was first born when I heard the text of Psalm 30 sung to a rather sad melody. For me, the tone of the music-the feeling it projected-didn't seem to match the message the words were conveying.
I told myself that someday I'd compose music for the same passage that would be a better match. I thought the text called for music that is bright, cheerful and would make people want to dance. It was years later when I saw the car commercial that inspired the music that would accompany my version of the psalm. I knew that this music was what the lyrics from Psalm 30 were begging for. Always ask yourself if your music is relaying the same message as your lyrics.
Forward, Always Forward
Once you begin working on a new worship song it's very important that you keep moving forward. You need to keep making progress. You want to keep your momentum up. You don't want to get bogged down in the muddy water of details.
For instance, you might be making great progress with a melody but a section of lyrics is giving you trouble. The temptation for many writers is to stop and think about it. Well, if you do you just may lose that forward momentum. In this regard, a seemingly strange yet helpful technique that many songwriters use is to sing melodies with lyrics that makes no sense. I have been mumbling nonsense to help me find the melodies for my songs from my earliest days of songwriting. Over the years I've discovered that this is a very common practice.
"Yesterday," by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, is one of the most covered songs (recorded by various artists) in pop music history. Sir Paul has made it known through many interviews over the years that the title and main lyric of this monster hit was originally "scrambled eggs," and remained "scrambled eggs" for several days while he developed the song.
The main idea is to avoid letting any little snag in the creative process stop you in your tracks. If you have a good melody idea, you want and need to move forward with it. If you allow yourself to believe that you must have exactly the right lyric before you can proceed, you risk not finishing your song at all. Choosing to insert a nonsense lyric into your song enables you to move forward with what you have, and reduces the possibility of not completing the song because of what you don't have. I've actually ended up with complete melodies without realizing I was saying something that actually made sense.
I try to make sure my songs don't stay in one place for too long. Songs are more interesting and engaging if they actually go on a musical journey. I'm referring to song dynamics. For instance, I like songs that build from soft melodies in lower registers to loud, high climaxes. How Could I But Love You and Be Still And Know are both good examples. These songs make me feel like I've been taken on some kind of worship adventure. They begin softly, build to a climax, then return to soft and peaceful.
As a basic rule of thumb, verses tend to be written in lower registers and gradually climb to the higher register where the chorus takes over. Generally, a well-structured song will steadily build and climax at the end of the chorus.
I also try to save the more significant, meaningful words like Lord, love and You (to name a few examples) for the end of an ascending phrase. Ending a phrase on a high, sustained note using words like the, with, or a just doesn't work. It gives the impression that the singer is trying to think of something else to say before singing the next line.
The Melody Test
Another reason I particularly like "How Could I But Love You" and "Be Still And Know" is that the melodies on the verses are fairly memorable. It's been said that if you can pick out a melody on a piano with one finger and no other accompaniment, and the melody still stands on its own, then you've got something worth keeping.
What is the key to making your song more likely to pass the melody test? One word-simpli
Writing lyrics is often the biggest challenge to a songwriter. So, most of us need all the help we can get.
One of the easiest and most effective types of worship songs are those written directly from scripture. I would say that approximately half of my songs fall into this category. I highly recommend this approach. First, because it's hard to go wrong using the Word of God. Second, using scripture as inspiration can be especially helpful to those who struggle with the lyrical side of songwriting.
It's important to know that you don't have to draw scripture into your song word for word. However, if I'm not going to use a scripture word for word, I must be absolutely certain that I understand exactly what the passage is saying. I want to be certain I'm communicating God's truth in the way He originally intended. Usually I will read the verse I'm working with in several different Bible translations. Bible commentaries on the verse can be very helpful, as well. This process frequently gives me new ideas so it's worth doing the work. Once I'm confident that I fully comprehend the text, I feel total freedom to be creative with it.
The song "Everyone Arise" serves as a good example. This song is taken from Isaiah 60 which reads [NIV], "Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you."
I also used a portion of Psalm 34, which says, "Those who look to Him are radiant." I love these passages because they communicate the vision of worship evangelism. They tell us that the world will see God's glory through us as we look to the Lord and give our lives in worship to Him.
So, here is how these verses of scriptures were finally translated into "Everyone Arise:"
Everyone arise and let it shine,
Children of our God your light has come,
For the glory of the Lord
And the beauty of His grace
Is rising on you now.
Though the darkness covers all the earth
They will see your light, they will hear the sound
For the glory of the Lord
And the beauty of His grace
Is rising on you now.
The song's chorus is simply a response to the text:
Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him.
Arise and shine and celebrate Him.
Let His glory rise on you, let it rise.
The presence of scripture is strong in this song. I was able to harness the power of God's Word but
Let's think about our God, our Savior and our King.
The One who gave it all, He gave up everything.
Let's think about the Man who shed His precious blood,
So we could be His friend, His friends until the end.
The end of the first and second lines derive their rhyme on the "ing" of King and everything. The fourth line utilizes an internal rhyme with the two rhyming words located within the same line-in this case they are friend and end.
Now a few examples of false rhyme:
Sighed - Cry
Hands - Man
Mind - Time
Lie - Fight
You can see that false rhyme relies on the strength of the vowel sounds to link two words together while consonants take something of a "back seat" in importance.
The verse of "Only A God Like You" is a good example of false rhyme.
For the praises of man
I will never, ever stand
For the kingdoms of this world
I'll never give my heart away or shout my praise
The first line ends with the word man, and the word stand completes the false rhyme at the end of the second line. Since man ends with the letter "n" and stand ends in "nd," the rhyme is dependent on the sound of the vowel, "a" which is common to both words.
You might want to note that contemporary music often mixes true and false rhymes within the same song-as long as it sounds "right" and "natural." The chorus of "Lord I Believe In You" uses a combination of true and false rhyme.
Lord I believe in You. I'll always believe in You
Though I can't see You with my eyes
Deep in my heart Your presence I find
Lord I believe in You and I'll keep my trust in You
Let the whole world say what they may
No one can take this joy away.
Lord I believe.
The second and third lines false rhyme the "i" sound of eyes and find. The fifth and sixth lines use a true rhyme with may and away.
Here are a few more suggestions for using rhyme:
- Don't hesitate to use a good rhyming dictionary to help you find the right rhyme. I have a software version installed on my computer.
- If you're just starting out, you might begin by using true rhymes before you move on to the use of false rhymes.
- Be consistent and use the same rhyme scheme from verse to verse whenever you can. This will give cohesiveness to your song.
- Try testing your lyrics as though you're an actor reading dialogue. When you read your lyrics, do they "talk"? Do they sound like normal, human speech?
Let It Flow
As I discussed earlier in regard to melody, it is important that you keep your ideas flowing. This applies to lyrics, as well. When lyric ideas begin to come I want to let them flow, both the good and the bad. I just get it all down on paper or recorded. Making note of all the ideas, both good and bad, gives me more to work with. I try not to start over-analyzing too early. It interrupts the flow and draws me away from the ideas that are coming.
Don't Say Too Much
While reading the Bible I will often get excited by it's many truths. But I have learned that the inherent beauty of a worship song lies in its ability to communicate something simple in a very deep and meaningful way. If I have several different thoughts I will put them each into different songs. This is a very important point. A songwriter wants the people who hear his or her worship song to walk away knowing what the one central theme is, what the song is really all about.
Write From The Heart
The more true feeling and emotion you can get into a song the less contrived and insincere it will sound. I have found that I have to search deep into my heart and have extended times of quiet before the Lord, to reach a place of real honesty.
(Tommy Walker has written over forty worship songs that are currently being tracked by CCLI. These include: Mourning Into Dancing, He Knows My Name, That's Why We Praise Him and No Greater Love. Tommy has been the worship Leader at