Archive for the ‘Songwriting’ Category

10 Ways to Slay Your Next Nashville Writers’ Round

I went to a show last week featuring 5 young songwriters. After the first round, I quit listening and started writing this blog post. Over the last 16 years as a professional songwriter I’ve played and attended countless writers’ rounds with Hall of Fame songwriters and new writers alike. Since I started teaching songwriting and music business classes 7 years ago I’ve been to a hundred writers rounds with students playing their first shows. I’ve seen the best and the worst. I’ve witnessed unforgettable moments of musical sublimity and utter train wrecks of musical awkwardness. Now that live music has begun to come back, here are Ten Practical Tips to help you thrive in a traditional Nashville writers’ round.

A Nashville-style writers’ round (shortened from the phrase “Songwriters In the Round) refers to a concert featuring three or more songwriters who will each play 3 or 4 songs in turn in a round-robin format. The focus is on the song itself more than the performance with each writer sharing a brief story behind the song followed by a simple acoustic performance of the song.

1) Remember, they are ALL new songs to us! No one in the room has ever heard your music so “I wrote it last week” and “I wrote it last year” are equally irrelevant statements to your audience. Never say “do you guys wanna hear a new one?” We don’t have a choice. Just play us great songs.

2) Always choose a few more songs than you’re allowed to play. Then read the room, read the energy, react to the song just played. When you’re preparing, you’re only thinking about YOUR songs but OUR story arc as an audience involves how all of the songs fit together. If the other writers have just played three emotional ballads in a row then it doesn’t matter if you planned on your second song being that emotional ballad. Change it up or your song will just get lost. AS you select which songs to play, bring some variety – some tempo, a 6/8 thing, a super sappy ballad, something funny or cute or clever. Don’t just play what YOU WANT to play. That’s selfish. Serve the audience by learning how to give them a great night of entertainment.

3) DON’T talk too much. I’ve been guilty of this too often. Don’t tell us what the lyric is gonna tell us. Just sing it. If you have to explain the song for us to understand it then it isn’t a well written song. If you’re going to talk before the song, then just set up the story briefly. Let the song be one part of the story arc. Or tell us a little about what it’s like to be a songwriter. Most audiences think songwriting is a mystical, transcendental experience. What’s it actually like in the writer’s room? How did the idea come up? How many re-writes did it take before you got it to where it is now? BRIEFLY give us a glimpse into the writer’s life. Remember, the less you all talk the more songs you all get to play. The more you talk, the more time you’re stealing from the other writers.

4) DO Say your name too much. And say the names of the other writers on the stage with you.  “Thats Haley Rush everybody. I’m Melody McHitt and this one’s called “Please Like My Song.” And then at the end offer ”thanks everybody. I’m @desperate4attention on insta. Let’s be friends!. Hey, Kelly McBride, what do you have for us next?” And say the names of your co-writers. Always give credit to your co-writers because a writers round is about the songs.

5) Funny always wins. A well-rehearsed, well-timed joke can break the ever-present tension between songs. then once you get the laugh, don’t ruin it with extra comments. Just lob the joke-grenade and then move on. Even a funny song is a great way to win the crowd. YOU want to show em how awesome you are as a serious writer. But THEY want to have a fun night out listening to live music. Using one of your four songs (or even one moment in a song) to bring some levity to the evening will be deeply appreciated by your audience. *CAVEAT* if you’re just not funny don’t try this. Don’t use your Mom as a judge of whether or not your joke is funny. She is biologically required to laugh at your jokes. Find another way to grab the attention of the audience.

6) Unapologetically play the hits but don’t ever expect that they know the song. Even a smash will only be familiar to a sliver of the audience. “If you know this one, sing along” falls flat almost every time I’ve heard a writer try it. Just say “an artist named Garth Brooks recorded this one and I’m really proud of it” and then sing it. Honestly, if a song you’ve written has had even a little commercial success it’s worth celebrating but don’t assume your success has been noticeable to anyone else. Just play the hits and let them speak for themselves. Hit writers always prefer to play new songs because we don’t play shows very often. The audience is there for the hits so don’t be selfish by playing that artsy, navel-gazing, tone-poem you’ve been working on. Sing to serve!

7) Never apologize for something before your song. When you say “I’ve had a cold this week so please forgive my voice” or “I hope I remember how to play this new one,” you’re asking us to judge your voice or to watch for mistakes. Most folks won’t even notice the thing you’re self-conscious about if you don’t you TELL them to notice it.

8) Resist the urge to play along or sing harmonies with the other writers unless you are a) the co-writer who knows the song well, or b) you‘re a world class instrumentalist and they’ve asked you to play along. Even then, be selective about when you play along. Too much noodling distracts from your fellow writers.

9) Figure out a way to work in a super-familiar cover to your set and you will win the room. Going into a familiar chorus or singalong part at the end or bridge of your song can be a refreshing way to let people participate. They’ve been listening to unfamiliar songs all night.  Something familiar will feel like pure oxygen. How to choose a cover: pick something EVERYONE will know. Don’t cover an artist that is stylistically similar to you. Put your unique song on something totally different from you and we’ll remember YOU instead of remembering the artist you sound like. If you sound like Kelsea Ballerini, cover a Michael Jackson song and let us sing along.

10) Think through your endings. Too often, writers add an awkward chord chop at the end of a ballad just because they feel awkward and aren’t sure what to do. As songwriters, we’re in the catharsis business. End your song in a way that honors our feelings. That musical moment makes a difference so don’t waste it.

You don’t have to be in Nashville to find a great writers’ round. They’re popping up all over the globe. If you can’t find one, search out a great venue and ask them if you can host one. Then invite me and I’ll cheer you on from the cheap seats!

5 Core Essentials for Writing Worship Songs

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

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:


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