Songwriting, to me, is a discipline. It’s a set of skills that you have to continue to hone. You have to work out your songwriting muscles regularly to keep them from atrophying. I’m sure there are those who write gold and platinum hits with every pen stroke, but for the rest of us songwriting commoners we have to work at it.
I write faith-oriented songs for worship. Well, technically, I write other stuff, too, but for this post it’s all about writing songs to be used in worship settings.
Most, if not all of my worship songs come directly from scripture. There’s a plethora of ideas and in my opinion the best source for writing songs for worship. So, I try and read scripture. A lot of it. I don’t mean legalistically, but it’s a great idea to soak in it, to meditate on it. You want to write from a place of experience and familiarity with Scripture. Don’t just throw a dart at a random Psalm and make a song out of it.
1. Take a short scripture passage
…that has been speaking to you. Boil it down to one theme. I usually try to keep it to 4 verses or less. I’ll be using Psalm 63:1-4:
1 O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.
4 I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.
Theme that I’ll focus on: God fills, quenches, and satisfies us in desert seasons.
It might take a while to actually boil it down because sometimes you’ll see more than one theme jump out at you. Which is actually a good thing. Use a songwriting notebook and catalog those ideas for later use. You can actually write multiple songs from even the shortest passages.
2. Paraphrase and Rewrite:
You’ll want to reword or paraphrase some of the scripture lines for singability. Sometimes you don’t have to. But for me, I tend to like to actually “write” a song and not just lift* it directly from the pages of Scripture.
Using Psalm 63:1-4 and the theme of “satisfied” as my example:
I might rewrite this phrase: Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you
Your love is so amazing, I can’t help but praise You with my song
Because of Your amazing love, I’ll sing my praise to You
We will sing our praise to You, You’ve loved us more than we could know
The point is that you can say basically the same thing many different ways. I believe, that depending on the translation you start from, it might actually benefit you and those that hear your songs to actually hear different versions of the same concept. Why? Well, for one thing if you’re writing for an environment that hopes to include those who are far from God, you don’t want to be “churchy” sounding with all of your songs.
There’s a time and a place to sing “Majesty, worship his majesty, unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise…” but there’s also a time and a place to sing the same concept but more like “We’ve come to celebrate the greatness (majesty) of Jesus, we give him all of our praise!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Majesty, it’s a great song. Probably one of the most popular contemporary worship songs of the 20th century (and with good reason).
Just make sure that you are conveying the concept in a clear and concise way.
Question to ask yourself when writing from Scripture: If I didn’t grow up in church, wasn’t on staff (paid or volunteer), or had only been in church for a very short time would I still understand the wording of this song?
3. Write the chorus first:
Yep. That’s how I do it. (remember this post is about how I write a worship song). Others may do it differently. But to me, the whole idea in writing a song is that the most important concepts are repeated and easy to sing. A la, the chorus. Sure you repeat the melodies of the verses, and/or prechoruses, but the chorus is where all the memory action happens.
Name any good song that’s stood the test of time and ask people to sing the verses. Sure, people usually can sing them, but I guarantee that if you compared how many people mess up singing the verses from memory and how many mess up singing the choruses from memory, the stats would favor the choruses being the most easily retrieved. Ever heard anybody singing along to a song they know, kind of mumbling along to the verses, but when that chorus kicks in…BAMM!! They’re all in.
Make sure your chorus is solid. Here’s some things to think about:
- Not too wordy.
- Easy to Sing.
- Catchy (tune and lyrics).
- Clear in concept.
- Short and sweet (in comparison to the other elements). Why? You can always repeat the choruses, more times than not, you won’t be repeating the verses again.
When writing for worship settings, it’s important to keep in mind you’re wanting to write a song that people actually join in and express their worship to God with. You’re not writing the next radio hit (one wonders these days, with the modern/radio worship movement though).
When writing for congregational worship, you’re writing to SERVE the congregation, not yourself. Would it be nice to get royalties for the rest of your life on a song like Shout to the Lord? Of course, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to serve the congregation. As worship songwriters, we write to give non-writers an avenue of worship expression.
Using Psalm 63:1-4, from our example, I might write a chorus that looks like this:
You are so amazing, You are good
You are my everything, You are good
The idea here is focusing on how God satisfies. I can say that without saying “God you satisfy me.” I just wrap that up neatly in the very vague, yet very specific “You are good” line. Where it makes it a little more specific is the “You are my everything” line.
Now some of you might be thinking, “Man, this is a very simple chorus.” I’ll agree. But like I said, the point isn’t to convey 14 Biblical truths or to even paint 1 Biblical truth in 14 different ways. The point is to write something that is singable, accessible, and memorable.
4. Add verses:
That’s right, add in the verses, pre-choruses, and bridges that reinforce the chorus. There’s several ways to do that.
All on the same “page” – Write your verses and prechoruses in such a way that they lead up to the chorus by being being the same general idea. If I were using Psalm 63:1-4, I might have a verse that reinforced my theme by being rewording the chorus line or saying the same thing differently. I could even be a whole lot more specific by adding in the “satisfy” idea here.
No one else can fill my life the way you do
Nothing else can satisfy the hunger of my heart
No one else completes me like you do
Nothing else fulfills the longing of my heart
Then when I go into a pre-chorus or chorus here with a little bit more vague idea like You Are Good, You are my everything, it’s pretty obvious what the concept of the song is.
The other method is to create tension between the verse and the chorus by focusing on opposite concepts. The word “BUT” works wonders. Write the same verse but approach it from a negative perspective. The above example focuses on how there is only ONE who can satisfy and then leads in to the chorus. This method focuses more on where we are in our human condition. Which works good with this passage as well, because of verse 1.
O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
I’d make it into a verse by writing it into something like this:
Here I am, so dry and weary
My life has left me longing
The desert is closing in on me
So I look to You, I look to You
Notice how the emphasis is on the negative, and then as we move to the last line of the chorus we have the big “but” moment (other words like so, yet, and however work as well). The point is, there’s a tension between the verse and moving towards the chorus. The chorus is the payoff. Verse = dry, weary, longing. Chorus = but You are good, you are everything (logically you satisfy).
5. Add in Prechoruses or Bridges:
Again, keep in mind this is how I write songs for worship. Your method might be different. And it might even be better.
Here’s where I would come in and add a prechorus or bridge. I like to keep in mind that if both the verse and chorus are both positive I might add in the negative angle for a little tension. For example in this case, I might focus on how “WHEN I’m dry and weary You fulfill” me and then rock it back into the chorus.
If I’m using the tension method between the verse and chorus, I might just simplify the concept down to a phrase and repeat it. Think along the lines of “You Are My King (Amazing Love)” by Billy Foote (though both verses and choruses are focusing on positive aspects). When it gets to the bridge “You are my King” line it’s just a simple phrase repeated over and over…but it’s actually the essence of the whole song. It just takes the chorus and continues to drive that concept home.
Another good example of a simple bridge is Hillsong. They tend to do this a lot. After the 2nd verse and 2nd chorus, they’ll go to a repetitive phrase that just reemphasizes the song concept. “Everyday” by Joel Houston is a good example of this. They just took the chorus and rearranged the wording a bit.
6. Add Music?
If you’re like me, you’ve already been adding music along the way. Some people write only lyrics first. I actually only write lyrics first when I’m writing a rap tune or something along those lines. Most times, I’ll already have a chord progression in mind when I begin to meditate on Scripture.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t just write lyrics. If that’s what works for you do it. Add music later.
7. Throw out the formula:
The other thing to think about is that what works well for most of your songwriting, can just as easily be thrown out. Sometimes I approach a song from a totally different angle because I WANT it to be different. I might ask someone else to come in and help with lyrics or music. I might write only the lyrics first. I might just write a song based on something I see or experience. That can be just as much utilized in a worship setting as a “scripture” song. Maybe even better (just make sure your experiential songs line up with scripture before you release them into the wild).
Russ Hutto is the Associate Director of Worship & Media at St. Simons Community Church where he mentors, oversees and helps lead Family and Student worship environments. He is also the content curator and editor here at The Worship Community.