Archive by Author | Stephen James Carter

You Long To Be Gracious

Beautifully Unfair

Hi Friends, its been a while since I’ve posted anything here. So, I thought I would change that by sharing my latest song with you. I’m going to let the song sing for itself. Enjoy!

Have any thoughts or comments? Feel free to share below.

Less Linear

A major roadblock to spontaneity in worship is linear thinking. When all of the songs on our setlist have a precise beginning, middle and end, there is very little room for creativity or even just lingering in the moment. Sure, tight arrangements sound great and have their place, but every worship service needs to have at least one portion that doesn’t feel programmed or rushed.

Instead, I like to think of each part of a song as a cog or gear. The verse, chorus and bridge are all connected, but in a way where we can move from one to the other without a specific order or pattern in mind. Each part can be repeated as many or few times as necessary. I’m even a fan of repeating one line of the verse a few extra times for impact. It makes us think about what we are singing.

Some songs lend themselves to this kind of thinking very easily because the chord progressions they use are circular. For instance, C – Am – F – G is a circular chord progression. The bass note moves down from C, down from Am, up from F and up from G. One time through the progression is one revolution.

Songs with only one chord progression are the easiest to lead without a linear structure. Your band can’t mess up too badly when all they have to play is four chords.  Using simple songs and intentionally practicing them with no order will give your team confidence to flow. Sometimes, I like to start a song with the bridge or chorus rather than the intro or verse. My team is generally prepared to jump in wherever I start.

Teach your team how to follow your body language and use hand signals. My team knows how big I want to build by how high my hands jump off the keyboard. I also signal them in other ways if they are going a direction that I am not headed. Sometimes I follow the lead of one of the other instruments if they are really flowing well.

Flowing together spontaneously as a team takes practice. Give them lots of opportunity to do so before Sunday morning.

Do you think more or less linear when it comes to worship?

Songwriting Basics: Lyric

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.

This post concludes my Songwriting Basics series. Don’t forget to catch the other posts on Theme, Structure, Melody and Chord Progression.

Did I leave anything out? What guidelines do you use when writing?

Songwriting Basics: Chord Progression

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

Be sure to check out my other posts on songwriting here: Theme, Structure, Melody.

What are some of your favorite chord progressions?

Songwriting Basics: Melody

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!

Check out more songwriting posts on Theme and Structure.

Have you started writing? What are you waiting for?

Songwriting Basics: Structure

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?

Songwriting Basics: Theme

Today, I am starting a series on songwriting. If you are already familiar with my blog, you know that I am a big proponent of spontaneous singing, but just because I love spontaneity does not mean I am against songwriting. Writing original songs for worship is an important piece of any community because it reflects the unique work of the Holy Spirit at a certain time and place.

However, crafting a song takes time, and as I have found, being a good worship leader doesn’t equal being a good songwriter. It takes intentionality to develop as a skillful writer. It’s true that not every worship leader needs to write songs, but how about organizing people in your church to start writing songs for worship? Finding and nurturing budding songwriters will be a blessing to your community.

So, where do we start?

First of all, there is no correct way to write a song. Some techniques may work better than others, but since each of us are different, you’ll have to discover what works for you. I will write this series of posts using a specific order which you can follow, but I have intentionally left out “Part 1”, “Part 2”, etc. so that you can access them in any order you choose.

Secondly, if you’re just getting started, don’t expect your first song to be awesome. Write to worship. Write to gain experience. Awesome songs will come in time.

Third, don’t wait for inspiration. Set aside a time and place to be creative and then just keep going back. What looks messy today might end up being a masterpiece tomorrow.

Now, let’s talk about theme.

Deciding a theme is a good starting place. In a well-crafted song, the theme is supported by each element individually and synergistically. Knowing your theme from the beginning helps you make decisions that keep your song focused. Focus is important because it gives your song a specific purpose. Without that purpose, it will likely have too many ideas.

Choosing a name can be a good way to identify your topic and find additional ideas that you will use later. Once you have a name selected, write down as many other words/thoughts/feelings/scriptures that you associate with the title. Spend time being descriptive. None of the process will go to waste. Be sure to save all your ideas and organize them. These are the beginning of your lyrics.

If you’re short on ideas for a theme, look at the themes your pastor preaches. Having worship songs that support the message are incredibly powerful. Also, think about experiences you’ve had with God. What was He ministering to you? Writing what you know will always produce a better song than writing from theory.

Ready to get started? What theme will you write about?

Talking Not Required

One of the challenges every worship leader faces is knowing when to talk and how much to say. My personal preference is to err on the side of saying nothing, but for many, a few words throughout the service helps them engage. On the other hand, too many words make for a very distracting worship time.

Today, I’m proposing there is another way to communicate during worship without stopping the music and talking. Singing. Yep, that’s right. Aren’t we already singing? Yes, but the singing I’m suggesting is a sung version of what you would otherwise say. A spontaneous song. It’s possible to phrase your thoughts in such a way that instead of being an exhortation to the congregation only, it is also a response to God.

Below is a link to an example of what I’m describing from our worship service at The Well. Skip ahead to 35:00 on the play bar if you don’t want to listen to the sermon (which was very good). The spontaneous song starts at 35:39. Listen for the spontaneous chorus (37:07) I use to end the song and help the congregation respond to the message.

Sunday, July 21, 2013 at The Well

What did you think? How would you use this technique?

Practice Makes Permanent

Most people have heard the adage, “practice makes perfect.” However, this statement is not entirely true. Drawing from the wisdom of my former teachers, and my own personal experience, “muscles have memory” and “practice makes permanent.” Since permanence most certainly does not guarantee perfection, here are a few tips for making sure you get the most out of your practice time.

1. Focus

Before you do anything else, make sure your mind is clear and able to concentrate. Without the ability to focus, your practice will, at best, maintain your skill, but more likely, introduce or reinforce bad habits. It is better not to practice than to do so with a foggy, tired mind. Take a nap, have a snack, start relaxed.

2. Warm Up

Just as athletes warm up before any sport or fitness activity, musicians need to warm up as well. Since muscle memory is what we are building through practice, we must be intentional about getting those muscles ready to learn. Scales are a good way to warm up. Use something fun and familiar. Five minutes is usually enough and having a set routine makes it easy.

I remember teaching a song to my worship team when my voice was not warmed up. During the service when my voice was fully warmed, my muscle memory brought back all of the straining from trying to sing the song cold. Not fun.

3. Go Slow

Especially when learning a new song, take your time. Mistakes usually come from going too fast. Speeding up the tempo after you have learned the song is much easier than learning mistakes and having to reprogram those muscles.

4. Take Breaks

Don’t feel the pressure to have a long practice time. Even if you do practice long, take breaks. Give those muscles a chance to recuperate. Play five minutes, rest five minutes. This method will greatly increase the effectiveness of your practice time.

5. Repeat Often

It is so much better to practice everyday for 10-15 minutes rather than twice a week for two hours. Squeezing more practice times into your week will provide greater and faster results.

6. Have Fun

When practice is only about learning new songs or working through difficulties, it can be hard to stay motivated. Playing songs you love or simply improvising as an emotional release is critical to an enjoyable practice. Let your heart be happy during practice time. Make beautiful music.

7. End Early

It is possible to over-practice. Knowing when you’re done and quitting while you are ahead is important. There were times in college when I worked my fingers until I couldn’t play a song at all. If you notice that you are making more mistakes than when you started, you have practiced too long. Again, as in the first tip, only practice for as long as you can concentrate. You should feel encouraged and refreshed after practicing, not exhausted.

Did I miss anything? What makes your practice time effective?