Archive for the ‘Songwriting’ Category

5 Core Essentials for Writing Worship Songs

5CoreEssentials
Writing Songs for the church is a unique and even dangerous task. I can help you navigate that process. I’ve made an introductory lesson from the Kingdom Songs University course “Kingdom Songcraft” available for free at kingdomsongsuniversity.com.

The full 10 lesson course is $199 and includes a companion e-book full of helpful songwriting prompts. The free offering (lesson 2 in the full course) is a great introduction to what you can expect from Michael Farren and me in the larger course. Even by itself, I think this video will prove to be an important and inspiring resource to help you write beautiful and timeless songs for the church. CLICK HERE to sign up for the free video lesson.

Cantatio Divina

Over the last 5 years, I’ve frequently used a practice of “sacred singing” that I’ve called Cantatio Divina with various groups of worship-focussed songwriters. Below is an explanation of the idea, its historical and biblical foundations and some tips for leading this practice in your own context.

Old-Piano-HD-Wallpaper-1“Do we read the Bible for information about God and salvation, for principles and ‘truths’ that we can use to live better? Or do we read it in order to listen to God and respond in prayer and obedience?” – Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book.

Lectio Divina (or sacred reading) as a Benedictine practice saw scripture not simply as a book to study but as a place to meet with a living God, believing the presence of God could be experienced through meditating on the Word of God. Lectio provides the prayerful student of God’s Word a powerful path to follow in praying the scriptures. In the practice of Lectio Divina, one moves through 4 stages – lectio (reading the Word), meditatio (meditation on the Word), oratio (praying the Word), and contemplatio (contemplating the Word). That final stage of contemplation is not simply “thinking about the word” but a centered union with the Word Himself, bringing the heart and the mind into resting in the presence of God. This movement might be viewed as a kind of labyrinth for the soul, encouraging the reader ever-inward toward a deeper union with God through a prayerful reading of God’s Word.

Similarly, Cantatio Divina (or sacred singing) is a practice that can provide us a place to encounter God through singing God’s Word. Cantatio as a group practice anchors our spontaneous singing or prophetic singing in the Word of God or quite literally in the words of God. In Ephesians 5:18-21, the apostle Paul instructs the church at Ephesus that the filling of the Holy Spirit is supposed to result in us speaking and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. In a parallel comment to the church at Colossae, Paul suggests that these spiritual songs cause the word of Christ to “dwell richly” in us. Our thankful singing gives life the word of God in our hearts (Col 3:16). To the church at Corinth, Paul gives specific instructions about prophecy in worship and even specifically guidelines for the practice of spiritual or prophetic singing. “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:15-16, ESV). Sacred singing is certainly a biblical practice but must be practiced in a way that leads to understanding – to the word of Christ dwelling richly in us.

CANTATIODIVINASimilar to the pattern the Desert Fathers established for Lectio Divina, Cantatio Divina has four distinct movements: Inquisitio (searching the Word), Lectio (reading the Word), Cantatio (singing the Word), Concentio (choral agreement with the group). Participants move in and out of these four stages freely, sometimes searching the scriptures, sometimes joining the singing of another group member, sometimes reading scripture allowed, and sometimes spontaneously singing the word of God that has been read or singing their own prayerful response to either what they have read aloud or what they have heard read aloud. While the goal of Lectio Divina is centered oneness with God, Cantatio Divina moves the participants toward a communal harmony with each other and with The Melody, Himself. Once a time of Cantatio Divina has begun, there is no need to follow a specific order of these four movements. Participants may move freely from concentio back into the cantatio of their own heart’s response to God’s word. Or they might move from a time of lectio straight back into inquisitio and find another passage to read aloud before singing anything at all. Each participant is allowed to follow their own path into an experience of God’s presence through this uniquely musical interaction with God’s word.

I traditionally begin the practice of Cantatio Divina by identifying a specific aspect of God’s character on which the group will focus (ie. “search the psalms for evidence that God is sovereign”). Because God is diamond-like with infinite facets of beauty, any aspect of God’s nature can serve as a rich beginning point for this practice. Occasionally I will lead at least one familiar worship song as a beginning point for the time of sacred singing, inviting the group to enter into a spirit of thanksgiving and inquisitive expectation. Sometimes this initial time of singing eases the anxiety of those inexperienced in the practice of prophetic singing and gets the ear used to the sound of worship in the particular space where we have gathered.

As the musical leader of a time of Cantatio Divina, I will play a repeating pattern of chords on piano or guitar that might serve as a canvas on which our time together might take shape. Any key, any progression, and any tempo can work. Particular care should be taken to keep the repeating pattern consistent for the sake of the singers. I might change the chord progression, key, tempo, or key signature once or twice during the practice but only when the entire group is in a season of inquisitio or oratio. These occasional changes keep the time fresh and moving forward. Dynamically, the musical leader can and SHOULD respond to the singing of the group, rising and falling on the same tide as their sacred singing.

The practice normally includes some time of quiet music as the group members individually search the scriptures for passages that draw their attention (inquisitio). As some participants continue searching the scriptures, others might begin reading the Word of God allowed to the group (oratio). As the musical leader you might spur on their cantatio by singing your own simple “thank you Father,” or “hallelujah.” You might encourage their concentio by listening well to their singing and joining someone’s song even verbally encouraging the group to join in singing a particular word or phrase that you’ve heard someone vocalize.

bible-study-groupI usually end the practice of Cantatio Divina either be verbalizing a prayer of gratitude to God for the specific aspect of His character on which the group has been focussed or by unifying the group around another familiar song of worship.

I hope you find in the practice of Cantatio Divina the same rewards I have: a deeper love not simply for the word but for its Author, not simply for worship but for The Song, himself.

5 Questions…

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…to ask about that Worship Song You’re Writing

The number of new worship songs being released these days is staggering. As songwriters, we all long to write songs that are noticed, used, and enjoyed by a wider audience but how can you ever hope your song will stand out in such a crowded market? Here are 5 questions to ask about that new worship song you’re writing.

1. Is it true? Is it honest? Is the song a true expression of my personal experience? Does the line “God I always feel you when I’m hurting” express your true experience? If you don’t believe what you’re writing, no one else will either. Don’t try and sell us false platitudes and niceties. Give us something true and then invite us to sing along.

2. Is it biblical? There are too many worship songs that sound good but aren’t actually biblical. Perhaps the greatest threat to the church today is not that which is anti-God but that which is almost-God. If you think you’re quoting scripture, look up the reference and make sure you’re not putting words in God’s mouth. Get theological input from trusted pastors. You might MEAN something that is not being communicated clearly in your lyrics.

3. Is it singable? Congregational singing is tricky business. Can a room full of non-musicians sing this song you’re writing? You might sound great performing this in front of people but can your church sing along? The new hybrid of worship-artists often write songs that they sound great performing but your congregation will have difficulty singing. A TOTAL melodic range of an octave or less is a good starting point. Writing a captivating melody in an octave or less that is easily singable by a crowd is a challenge.

4. Is it fresh? Over these thousands of years of recorded history surely millions of songs have written to God or about God. If you could listen through those songs you would be forced to ask, “does my song say anything new or interesting.” You will not say something that no one has ever said before, but can you find us a new window into an timeless idea? Tired cliches and the same trite phrases are repeated in worship song after worship song. Find fresh ways for the church to experience the timeless truths of the gospel and we will gladly raise our hands and sing along with you.

5. Is it excellent? Surely an excellent God deserves excellent work from His children. We say “that’ll do” way too often as Christian craftsmen. Is it beautiful? Is it thoughtful? I have often heard well-meaning Christian songwriters tell the same “God gave me this song” story only to perform a cliche and poorly crafted song. If God has inspired you to write a song, then follow Paul’s advice in Colossians 3:16-17, 23 and do the difficult work of crafting that song to richly reflect God’s glory. Dig deeper. Re-write it one more time. Find a richer metaphor. Sing a more interesting interval. The One Most High God deserves no less.

James Tealy is the worship pastor in Redemption City Church (Franklin, TN) and teaches songwriting at Belmont University. He has penned chart topping singles for Kari Jobe, Josh Wilson, Unspoken, Lauren Daigle, and more than 80 others. This week Redemption City Church releases “HANDED DOWN: Songs of Redemption City.” You can find free resources for the album here:

bit.ly/sorc2

AABA

After a study of common song forms in one of my Commerical Songwriting 1 classes at Belmont University, I realized I had never written an AABA song and decided to give it a shot.

A prevalent song-form from the 30’s to the 60’s, AABA is rarely employed now that the extended pop form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) dominates the songwriting landscape. A strophic or stanza form was a great tool for storytelling because each verse can introduce “a new chapter” in the story. The AABA form added a “middle 8” section: an 8 bar break from the story to give context, introduce a twist, ratchet up the tension, or add some emotional internal details to compliment the external details of the narrative verses.

The Beatles catalog is full of AABA songs. Other great examples include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by Carole King, “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys, “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “Over the Rainbow.”

For this exercise I’ve used Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” as a model, placing the hook in the first line of each A section. [SIDENOTE: Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” was recorded steps from where I wrote this song. Our songwriting classrooms share space with the Quonset Hut and Columbia Studio A.)

Goodbye, TX
(c)2015 Eleiht Songs / BMI

Born and raised in Goodbye, TX
Hundred miles from anywhere
One way street in both directions
For getting out once you get there
The oil in the ground was a shallow dream
The Quick-to-come were as quick to leave
Quick to leave

Met a girl in Goodbye, TX
I was stuck and so was she
We thought love just might distract us
Long enough to find some peace
We’d wave as the u-haul trucks passed by
In a weekly parade of red taillights
Red tail lights

My roots are anchored deep in this dry ground
But save a seat for me on the last truck out

Probably die in Goodbye, TX
Buried out behind the church
A dozen plastic yellow roses
At a gravestone next to hers
There’s no one left here to speak my name
From dust back to dust in a long slow fade
A long slow fade

START AN INDIGENOUS SONGWRITING MOVEMENT III

Over the next few weeks, the church I lead in worship will celebrate the release of our first collection of indigenously written songs. The album is called “Songs of Redemption City.” We are a thirteen-month-old church plant on the rural edges of suburban Nashville, TN with a unique mix of farmers, artists, business leaders, young families, religious leaders, educators, retired couples, and music industry types. We have spent our first year as a growing faith-family both recognizing and defining our ethos. Along our journey of writing, recording, and releasing this small batch of songs, we have encountered (and will continue to encounter) a variety of barriers that often accompany any indigenous songwriting movement.

The Singer/Songwriter Dilemma. The gift of songwriting is not always accompanied by vocal performance gifts. That dilemma can become a barrier in several ways. The vocal abilities of the songwriter can affect what direction the melody follows. We tend to write what we can sing. That means a song might never reach its fullest melodic potential if the songwriters voice is the only vehicle to carry the melody. We can address this in several ways. First, find someone else to perform the song you’re working on. Second, collaborate with a stronger singer to help the melody come alive as you’re writing the song. As those leading a songwriting team in our church, we have to learn to hear the song-stuff beyond the performance (lyric, melody, range, arrangement). We should ask some of these questions: What would this song sound like if it were being led by someone else? Should we transpose it to another key and let someone of the opposite gender lead the song? You might also begin to recognize the lyric-writing gifts of your people and pair them with stronger singers for collaboration. As writers, we must also learn the skill of writing songs with other singers in mind. Learn to write melodies that someone else will sound great singing.

The Song Placement Dilemma. If a Sunday morning worship gathering is your only outlet for new songs, then you will use very little indigenous content in your church. We are all much more motivated to write when we can see a potential use for the songs we’re writing. Right now in Redemption City, we are searching for new outlets for the songs our people are writing. We are working toward using our songs in community groups, in our children’s ministry, and in the nursing homes our ministry teams visit. We will probably introduce fewer than 10 new songs in our main Sunday morning worship gathering this year, but our team will hopefully write three times that amount of new content. I want our writers to know that God has important uses for the songs we write that extend well beyond our Sunday morning gatherings. Finding outlets for the songs being written in your church will keep the writers around you motivated to keep the new content flowing.

Building a Culture of Critique. This is the barrier I fear the most. When I invited my people to begin writing songs for the worship-life of our people, I also took on the uncomfortable role of critiquing their songs. After 11 years as a staff songwriter in various publishing companies, I have become fairly used to hearing “no.” I’ve been critiqued a lot along this journey and now I am used to placing the subjective criticism of these gate-keepers in perspective. I have learned to keep a loose grip on my songs and receive criticism with an eye toward helping my songs reach the widest possible audience. However, I recognize that receiving criticism of your creative work can feel soul-crushing. Perhaps, building a culture of critique into a songwriting community should be it’s own blog post. However, here are at least a few quick tips for navigating this emotional mine-field. First, set aside time for community song-sharing among the songwriters in your church. This will help your writers learn the difference between subjective opinion and objective truth. They will learn to answer the question, “Is this song biblically true?” That’s a very different question than, “Is this song compelling?” or “Do I like it?” Second, learn (and teach) the skill of balancing compliment with criticism. Asking and answering the following questions as you critique a song can help guide you: “What’s working about this song? What grabbed my attention? What subtle choices of adjective, metaphor, or melodic space stirred me?”

Ego. The hunger for attention and affirmation is poison to the human heart. There will be people who view your efforts to feed the church with indigenous content as their chance to gain fans and followers. Ask God regularly for the spiritual discernment to recognize this poison not only in those around you, but in your own heart. Then search for the courage to root it out early and often. Pride can spoil the work of building an indigenous songwriting movement. This work must be entered into with a humble and prayerful love for the church. We cannot simultaneously serve the Bride of Christ and serve our own hunger for attention and affirmation. Let the prayer of John the Baptist mark your songwriting efforts, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 HCSB).

In the next post, I’ll suggest some practical first steps for starting an indigenous songwriting movement in your church. In the meantime, can you identify some people around you that might join you in the work of writing in your church and for your church? The Creator is already at work around you. Join Him!