Let Me Help You Improve Your Worship Song

I’ve had an idea rumbling around in the back of my head for a while. I’ve written my fair share of worship songs. I’ve sat in on countless worship song evaluations with my dad, Bob Kauflin, Steve Cook, etc. I’ve had my songs scrutinized by a lot of people at one time. I’ve led worship for a long time. Generally speaking, I know what makes a good worship song and what doesn’t.

On top of that, I am constantly trying to think of new ways to provide money for my family. What if I blended the two together?

My guess is that many of you have worship songs that you’ve written, but you have no idea if they’re any good. You don’t know what to do with them. You think they can improve, but you’re not sure how. That’s where I come in. I really think I can help you with those worship songs you’ve got laying around. I really can help you make use of all those songs you’ve written but never used.

For $2o, you can submit a worship song to me. I’ll carefully listen to it several times, pore over the lyrics, then give you a detailed analysis of how I think the song can improve, both musically and lyrically. I’ll help you get your song ready for Sunday morning worship.

How does this process work? Simply go to the song submissions page, put in your name, email, and any comments, then attach the lyrics of the song as well as an MP3 recording. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Just you and your piano or guitar is fine. I’ll listen to the song, then give you a line by line analysis of it. With a little work we can take your song to the next level. We can get it ready for Sunday morning use.

Sound good? Let’s do it.

New Song Rough Sketch

photo

Sometimes people ask how I go about writing a song.

Do I just “get” whole songs spontaneously in the shower or while driving?  I wish it were that easy.  I usually begin with some kind of idea for the theme and then play numerous variations of melodies, chords, and rhythms and work and rework the lyrics.  Here’s a song in its early stages.  I wrote this – one verse and a chorus – to submit it to Bob Kauflin and Steve Cook for consideration for the upcoming album from Sovereign Grace called “The Gathering.”  I wrote only 1 verse and the chorus to get their opinion if it’s worth continuing to work on.  I’d like to hear your opinions as well.  It’s pretty rough.

If you would like to listen to this song  you can listen to it here.

Here are the lyrics:

SUCH GREAT THINGS

YOU HAVE STILLED THE WINDS
YOU HAVE CALMED THE WATERS
TO OUR TROUBLED HEARTS
YOU HAVE SPOKEN PEACE
YOU HAVE QUENCHED OUR THIRST
SATISFIED OUR HUNGER
YOU HAVE HEALED OUR WOUNDS
AND CURED OUR HEARTS’ DISEASE

SO WE WILL LIFT OUR VOICES AND SING YOU SONGS
WE WILL SHOUT FOR JOY, WE WILL WAKE THE DAWN
WE WILL GIVE YOU THANKS
FOR YOU HAVE DONE SUCH GREAT THINGS
SUCH GREAT THINGS

Mark Altrogge 6.28.11

Songwriting Tip: Do A Word Search

Sometimes when I want to write on a certain theme I do a word search using the ESV Online Study Bible.

Recently I was thinking about the phrase “sun of righteousness” in Malachi 4.2:

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings…

So I did a search for “sun,” printed the verses out, picked up my guitar and began singing through the Scriptures.  Eventually, some of them took shape into a song.

Here are the Scriptures I used followed by the song lyrics:

For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
the LORD bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.  (Psalm 84:11)

The sun shall be no more your light by day,
nor for brightness shall the moon give you light;
but the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended. (Isaiah 60:19-20)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1)

And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Revelation 21:23)

Sun of Righteousness

Ch:
O shine upon us Sun of Righteousness
For you have risen with healing in your wings
Heal us, revive us,
Breathe on us new life
For in your light we see light

1
Once in the darkness our Savior hung
Enduring God’s wrath in our place
You nailed all our sin to that cross of pain
And opened a fountain of grace
Oh Jesus, your name is our sun and shield
You’re worthy of all of our trust
We’ll arise and we’ll shine for our light has come
Your glory is shining on us

2
One day we won’t need the sun to shine
We won’t need the moon when it’s night
For you alone will be our glory
And our everlasting light
Our sun will no longer go down again
The days of our tears will be through
Our hope and our joy will not fade away
The day you make everything new

c Mark Altrogge 2010

Songwriting Tip: Ask A Question

Can’t think of how to start a song?  Ask a question.

Asking a question arrests the listener’s attention and demands that he or she answer or ponder.

Lots of secular songs do this, e.g Coldplay asks in “Fix You”:

When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

In “Who Can I Turn To?” Tony Bennett asks,

Who can I turn to when nobody needs me?
My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me…

Songwriters have been asking questions since David and the psalmists:

O Lord God of hosts,
who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
with your faithfulness all around you? (Ps 89.8)

Whom have I in heaven but you? (Ps 73.25)

So it’s no wonder Christian songwriters ask questions, like Matt Redman In “You Alone Can Rescue”

Who, oh Lord, could save themselves,
Their own soul could heal?

I use the question-asking technique from time to time, like in “We Sing Your Mercies”:

Should He who made the stars be hung up on a tree?
And should the hands that healed be driven through for me?
Should he who gave us bread be made to swallow gall?
Should he who gave us life and breath be slaughtered for us all?

Give it a try next time you have writer’s block.  Ask a question, like….Why can’t I think of anything to say?  Or Why am I torturing myself trying to write songs?  Or I wonder if another cup of coffee would help?…

photo by Pit’sLamp photography

Songwriting Tip: What Do You Listen To?

One of the hardest things for songwriters to do is to break out of the style of music they grew up on.

Obviously, I have a tough time breaking away from the influence of the Beatles and other bands from the 60′s and 70′s.  But one thing that helps me is listening to lots of different music.

I would encourage songwriters to listen to a wide range of stuff.

I listen to things like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (jazz fused with bluegrass), Irish music (like Riverdance), soundtracks (like those by John Williams [get his Greatest Hits - you can't beat the soundtracks from Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and others]), Broadway stuff (like Le Miserables).  Sometimes I listen to classical music and lately I’ve been listening to Ricky Skaggs new album, “Mosaic.”

I’m also grateful that my kids keep me posted on current music to listen to as well. I try to listen to bands like Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie, Snow Patrol, etc. and analyze their songs – what makes their melodies so good?  What kind of rhythms do they use?  What kinds of chord progressions do they use?

In this glorious day and age of technology, you can listen to all kinds of stuff for free on sites like Pandora and Grooveshark.

Just as writers must read a lot, songwriters must listen to lots of music.  The more you listen to, the more of a “reservoir” you’ll have to draw upon.

photo by jordanfischer

Songwriting Tip: Pursue Doctrinal Accuracy

Every word in a worship song should be doctrinally accurate.

Worship songs can teach, declare and celebrate the truth of who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ.  They should help us dwell richly on the word of Christ:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Co 3:16).

Our worship songs should be full of truth about Jesus’ character and deeds.  Therefore we want to make every word as doctrinally accurate as possible.

This is challenging because songs are poetic – they use metaphors, pictures, and colorful language, like the Psalms.  But our metaphors must be clear and biblically accurate.  I really like Delirious and our church has been blessed by a number of their songs, but I don’t know what they mean by these lyrics from Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble:

Did you feel the mountains tremble?
Did you hear the oceans roar?
When the people rose to sing of
Jesus Christ the risen one

Open up the doors and let the music play
Let the streets resound with singing
Songs that bring your hope
Songs that bring your joy
Dancers who dance upon injustice

Although these lyrics are great poetically, I don’t know what they mean (of course, I could just be dense). But is this song about this age?  Or the millenium?  Or heaven?  What do they mean by “Dancers who dance upon injustice”?  When did the mountains tremble and oceans roar?

Once a man I didn’t know called me about one word in a song of mine that had been published.  One word!  The line of the song was, “If you make righteous, who can then accuse us?”  He said that technically, God doesn’t “make” us righteous – he “declares” us to be righteous.  He “imputes” Christ’s righteousness to us, but we never become righteous in and of ourselves.

My first thought was, “Picky, picky, picky!”  But I checked with another pastor who confirmed the man’s point.

“But if I change it to ‘You’ve declared us righteous’ that will be too many syllables – it won’t fit the rhyme scheme,” I said.  My friend responded, “Truth affects peoples’ lives.  We don’t want people thinking that somehow they can ever be righteous apart from Christ’s righteousness.   Better the song be a little less easy to sing than doctrinally inaccurate.”

He was right.  I changed the words of the song to “You’ve declared us righteous.”  The line wasn’t quite as easy to sing, but it was more accurate.

Be diligent.  Be ruthless.  Make sure every word and metaphor is clear and accurate.  Get your pastor to look at your lyrics.  And read sound theological books like Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem.  It matters what we sing.

Photo by Xoe Craft

Songwriting Tip: The Holy Spirit Doesn’t Write Bad Songs

Occasionally in a songwriting workshop, when I’ve pointed out a weak lyric or poor melody, someone has replied, “But that’s the way the Holy Spirit gave it to me.”  My first thought is usually, “Then the Holy Spirit isn’t a very good songwriter.”

Our songs are not “inspired” in the same way Scripture is INSPIRED.  Every word of Scripture is God-breathed; we can’t make the same claim for our song lyrics.  That D minor 7 chord in the chorus is not the one and only chord the angels are using in heaven.

I’ve recently been trying to write a funeral song for Sovereign Grace Music’s “Resurrection” project.  So far I’ve sent in at least 6 different versions.  Finally last night I started from scratch and completely changed the lyrics and music.  After I sent it in, my friends Bob Kauflin and Sal Oliveri each got back to me suggesting alternative melodies to mine (and they were both better than mine).

Songwriting is primarily about rewriting.

If a song doesn’t immediately grab someone – if they say they think they’ll have to “get used to it,” it’s probably not that good.  Don’t defend your song like you defend the inerrancy of Scripture.  Go ahead, you can change it.  You can actually scribble out the words and write new ones.

So write, rewrite, then rewrite again.  Play it for someone.  Then rewrite some more.

photo by Olivander

A Surprising Twist, An Eye-Popping Metaphor…

Songwriting Tip: Push yourself to write creative lyrics.

Don’t settle for “You saved my soul and made me whole.”  Put a new suit on timeless truth.  Surprise us.  Turn our heads.  Pray, then lower your bucket deeper in the well.

I attempted to do this in “Emmanuel, Emmanuel”, on Sovereign Grace Music’s “Savior” CD.  Here’s part of verse 2:

We were blind and lost and godless
Wandering a trackless waste
Then hope arose, a glorious beacon
Like the star the wise men chased

“Wandering a trackless waste” (Ps 107:40 “he makes them wander in trackless wastes”) paints a more striking picture than “we were dry and empty.”  “Hope arose, a glorious beacon” outshines “you gave us hope.”  And “chased” sure beats “followed.”

Here’s part of verse 3:

You who with a word created
Sun and moon and seas and sand
Lay there sleeping in a manger
Cradled by Your mother’s hand

Much stronger than, “You are God who became a man.”

Check out this great song, “Completely Done” by By Jonathan and Ryan Baird and Rich Gunderlock. Creative lyrics convey the timeless truth of justification – and they don’t even say “justified.”

What reason have I to doubt
Why would I dwell in fear
When all I have known is grace
My future in Christ is clear

My sins have been paid in full
There’s no condemnation here
I live in the good of this
My Father has brought me near
I’m leaving my fears behind me now

Chorus
The old is gone, the new has come
What You complete is completely done
We’re heirs with Christ, the victory won
What You complete is completely done

I don’t know what lies ahead
What if I fail again
You are my confidence
You’ll keep me to the end
I’m leaving my fears behind me now

These lyrics are smoking they’re so fresh!  “I’m leaving my fears behind me now” – Why couldn’t I have thought of that?

Don’t be satisfied with your first draft.  Find a better word, a surprising twist, an eye-popping metaphor. We need you to write great lyrics!

You can get a free download of “Completely Done” here.

photo by dklimke

Songwriting Tip: Repeat and Vary

Use repetition and variation to write your melody.

Remember that kids song “How Dry I Am?”

How dry I am
How wet I’ll be
If I don’t find
The bathroom key

All 4 lines repeat the same rhythm (clap your hands to the rhythm if you don’t know what I mean).  Lines 1 and 2 have the same melody.  Lines 3 and 4 repeat the rhythm but vary the melody.

How about “Happy Birthday”

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday dear Mary
Happy Birthday to you

The rhythm is identical in lines 1, 2 and 4.  Line 3 is the same only adds a syllable (variation)
Though the rhythm is practically identical in each line, the melody varies each time.

The Beatles use more sophisticated repetition and variation in Eleanor Rigby:

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?

First, lines 4,5 and 6 repeat the rhythm and melody of lines 1, 2 and 3.  (Ok I know it’s obvious).

Now note the subtle repetition of the rhythm with the variation of the melody in:

up the rice
In the church
Where a wed-
ding has been

Same in the second half:

-ring the face
That she keeps
In a jar 
by the door

Eleanor Rigby is filled with repetition and variation.  Examine it and you’ll find even more examples.

Billy Joel is brilliant with repetition and variation.  Listen to “My Life,” or “She’s Always a Woman,” or “Don’t Ask Me Why,” or any of his songs.  Sorry kids, I can’t give you any examples from Snow Patrol or Death Cab, but they use r & v too.

Although lots of songwriting is instinctual, or by feel, sometimes when you’re writing, it’s good to examine your song and ask where you are repeating and varying phrases.  Sometimes if you’re facing writer’s block, you can jump start a song by beginning with a simple 4 or 5 note phrase.  Keep repeating the phrase, varying it – vary the melody, or try holding one note longer, or repeating the phrase over a different chord.  
Start to vary the rhythm.  Try it with “How Dry I Am.”  You just might get a new song out of it.

When you listen to songs, try to notice where the composer uses repetition and variation.  Of course don’t do this during Sunday worship with the saints….

photo by caitymariebus

Songwriting Tip: Use Another Song’s Structure


Occasionally I begin writing a song by copying the structure of another song.

Every song has a lyrical structure.  By structure I mean the number of syllables in each line, the lines that rhyme, etc.

Observe the structure of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”:

Mary had a little lamb (7 syllables)
Whose fleece was white as snow (6 syllables)
Everywhere that Mary went (7 syllables)
The lamb was sure to go (6 syllables)

Syllables in lines 1 and 3 match; 2 and 4 match.  Lines 3 & 4 repeat the structure of lines 1 & 2.  Lines 2 and 4 rhyme.

When I wrote “Glorious” on the Sovereign Grace album, “Come Weary Saints,” I used the structure of the hymn “How Great Thou Art.”  Compare the structure of the two verses below and you will see that you could sing the melody of “How Great Thou Art” to “Glorious.”

Verse 1 – “How Great Thou Art”:

O Lord my God,
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all
The works Thy Hand hath made,
I see the stars,
I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout
The universe displayed

Verse 1 – “Glorious”:

How great You are
Your greatness none can fathom
Upholding all
By Your almighty Word
The universe
Fulfills Your every purpose
And all You’ve made
Will bring You praise, O God

Obviously, I changed the melody, speed, and the feel to make my song completely different.  If I hadn’t told you, you’d probably never suspect what I did.  (This will be our little secret, ok?).  Like Albert Einstein said: “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”

Try this and see if it works for you.

photo by eskedal