As with all of songwriting, crafting a good lyric takes time and practice. If you have already created your Theme, you can get started with the ideas you wrote previously. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you are putting lyrics together:
1. Write about what you know.
Drawing from personal experience will always produce a better result than writing from theory. Monumental songs are birthed from exceptional circumstances. Think of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”. Horatio Spafford penned those words after facing the loss of his business and the lives of his four daughters.
2. Use scripture when writing worship songs.
There is nothing quite like singing God’s word back to Him. Our hearts grow in fascination of Him as we meditate on who He is and what He has done. Feel free to paraphrase if needed. We are working from a translation anyway.
3. Match the meter of the lyrics to the rhythm of your melody.
Choose words that fit naturally. Don’t force the emPHAsis on the wrong syLLAble. If the words you want don’t fit, use a thesaurus to find other words with a similar meaning. Just make sure you really understand the words you are substituting from the thesaurus.
4. Match the tone of the lyrics with the tone of your melody and chord progression.
Each part of your song should work together to clearly communicate the emotion and message of the song. Please don’t write about joy with a sad sounding melody or chord progression. It just sends a mixed message.
5. Decide from the beginning if you will rhyme or not.
Rhyming isn’t necessary in songwriting. However if rhyming, don’t stick to perfect rhymes. Many cliche phrases come from overused rhymes. Pair words like “soul” with “all” for an imperfect rhyme. Loose rhyming opens up many options.
6. Decide whether your lyrics will be literal, figurative or a combination of both.
“How He Loves,” by John Mark McMillan, is a great example of figurative language. Word pictures provide a wonderful perspective on an otherwise familiar topic. Knowing God is love and imagining “loves like a hurricane” are two very different things. I think it’s safe to say that word pictures are also worth a thousand words.
Did I leave anything out? What guidelines do you use when writing?
Chords add harmony and color to your melody as well as providing context. A good chord progression doesn’t need to be complex. Many worship songs are written with just three or four chords.
While there is quite a bit of theory behind why and how chord progressions work, it is easy to experiment and discover which chords sound good together. Typically, the melody will also give an idea of what the chord progression should be. The notes used in the melody will often be part of the chord played at the same time.
The two most common types of chords are called major and minor. Major chords have a happy sound while minor chords have a sad or melancholy sound. The ideal chord progression combines major and minor sounds to create tension and release.
Major and minor chords are grouped together into “families” which we call keys. Use the chords below as a starting place for your chord progressions. Feel free to mix them up and see how they work together. Once again, you will probably need a few chord progressions to accomodate your song’s structure. Sing your melody while playing your chord progression to make sure they work together.
Key of C: C, F, G, Am (the ‘m’ stands for minor)
Key of G: G, C, D, Em
Key of D: D, G, A, Bm
Key of A: A, D, E, F#m
Key of E: E, A, B, C#m
Key of B: B, E, F#, G#m
Key of F: F, Bb, C, Dm
What are some of your favorite chord progressions?
Melody is a series of notes from the scale of a particular key. A good melody has enough repetition to be memorable and enough variety to be interesting. If I sing one note over and over that would be easy enough to remember, but way too boring. On the other hand, I could sing all kinds of notes up and down the scale and sound good without being able to remember their sequence. Finding the balance is key.
Depending on your song’s structure, you will need two or three different melodies: one for the verses, one for the chorus and one for the bridge. Create as many melodies as you can. I am constantly recording melodic ideas on my phone to use at a later time. Don’t assume your first melody is going to be best for the song. Having more melodies than you need allows you to be selective and purposeful. Also, one of the extra melodies may make for a good instrumental or intro riff.
Consider the the theme of the song when writing your melody. If your song is about the joy of the Lord, please do not have it sound sad! Unless sarcasm is your goal, your melody should communicate the same message as your lyrics. It gives us additional emotional content that the lyrics alone cannot provide.
Melodies are expressed in phrases. Organizing the phrases is a way to develop the melody. If we name the phrases A and B, we might create a melody like this: ABAB or AAAB. Notice how both examples show repetition and variety. Other examples could be AABAAC or ABCABD.
Question and Answer is a type of melody where the first phrase (Question) ends on a high note similar to the vocal inflection used when asking a question. The second phrase (Answer) may start similarly, but ends on a low note often the starting note of the Question.
Worship songs are most congregational friendly when they are written within one octave. More notes is not necessarily better. Many melodies only use five notes. A singable melody is what we are after. Be creative and have fun crafting a great melody!
Have you started writing? What are you waiting for?
Last week, I started a series on songwriting with the topic of Theme (read about it here). As I said previously, there are many different ways to go about songwriting. This particular order of posts is a good starting place, but feel free to write your song in an entirely different order.
Much like selecting a theme at the beginning, choosing a structure for your song is like drawing plans for a house. Having a structure helps to organize the information and makes sure nothing is left out. The structure is a guide during the creative process.
Let’s look at some of the most common parts of a song’s structure:
- Chorus – If your song is a house, the chorus is the main room or living space. It summarizes the theme perfectly and is repeated over and over. The simplest songs have only one part, and for that reason, are called choruses. A good chorus will have a catchy melody and be easy to remember.
- Verse – With the chorus as the main room of our song-house, verses are like bedrooms. Each verse contains specific information that relates to the theme, but is different from the other verses. If our song is telling a story, each verse describes a different event as it unfolds. Verses are not typically repeated like the chorus and they usually share a melody and chord progression that are different from the chorus. Hymns are a good example of songs with only verses.
- Bridge – We could consider the bridge to be the deck or patio of our song-house. It continues the theme by restating it with different words, melody and chord progression. Typically the melody is higher and bigger than the chorus. The bridge is usually the climactic point of the song.
Other elements of structure include music before, between and after the Verse, Chorus or Bridge.
- Intro – The chord progression and melody used to start a song are called the Intro. It’s like the porch and front door of a house.
- Interlude/Instrumental – This is like the hallways of a house, they help us get from one room to another, but there are no lyrics.
- Ending/Outro – Similar to the Intro only at the end. Sometimes the intro and outro are identical. Other times, they are very different.
A great way to learn structure is to listen to your favorite worship songs and analyze their form. Using an existing song as a template is perfect for getting started. Mimicking successful songwriters speeds up the learning process.
Who are your favorite songwriters? Why do you like their songs?