After talking about it for 5 years, I finally overcame my fear and started traveling to Nashville to write, network, attend workshops, and just soak up whatever mojo is in the air down there.
I wanted to be a professional songwriter.
One of first lessons I learned there was this: I’m not writing for me. I always had to keep in mind someone else would be singing this. And there were rules about that–don’t make the artist look bad, keep the range singable, don’t get political, keep the theme universal.
Also, write something fresh and unique.
No wonder most songwriters drink
This aspect of the Nashville approach to songwriting is frustrating, but necessary. And it’s something we as worship songwriters need to grasp:
Our songs are for other people.
Here are some Nashville “rules” that could serve us well as we think about writing worship songs for other people:
People are only going to sing this once a week. It has to be something they catch quickly. A catchy melody is a given. But here are some other ways to do make your song memorable:
- Have a great title and lyrical hook.
- Keep your songs short. But wait, many worship songs are 6 or 7 minutes. Heck, some Jesus Culture stuff clocks in at 12 minutes. But that’s an arrangement thing. If you stripped away all the repeats and instrumentals, most of those songs are only 2 or 3 minutes long.
- Don’t bore us, get to the chorus. Most modern country tunes hit the chorus within 30 seconds, tops. Here’s a good test, if you find yourself getting even slightly antsy to get to the chorus of your own song, just imagine how twitchy a congregation will be.
- Write short phrases. Even a song as lyrically rich as In Christ Alone follows this. I don’t think any phrase in that song contains more than six words (and don’t confuse a phrase with a sentence). Getty and Townsend feed us an elephant, bite by bite.
A saying that’s thrown around a lot in Nashville is, “It’s Walmart, not Hallmark.” This is applied religiously in the country genre, but the CCM writers down there don’t stray too far either.
Should that really apply to worship music?
Look at Gungor or John Mark McMillan’s lyrics. They’re far deeper and poetic than your average praise choruses. But when we write for our congregations, we need to think about the “wide middle.”
There are handful of people in my congregation who would love a steady dose of Gungor and McMillan’s stuff. But most in the wide middle would have a tough time with the metaphor and abstract. Can we change that? Yes, but they won’t go from “how great is our God” to “sloppy wet kiss” in one Sunday.
Hit songs aren’t written, they’re rewritten. You’ll hear that ad nauseam at any songwriting seminar you attend. And a huge part of the rewrite process is being open to critique and feedback.
It hurt (badly), but I learned more from my songs being bludgeoned than I ever did from seminar bullet points. Unfortunately, many worship songwriters refuse critique. Their songs are somehow inerrant manna falling from the carb-free bakery of heaven.
We just have too many blind spots not to let others give input on our songs. What we think is clear and memorable might actually be a cluttered confusion.
And here’s the deal: if we don’t let our songs be critiqued and reviewed by others before we use them in worship, the congregation will certainly give us the feedback we neglected to get.
I’d rather have a few trusted advisors tell me my song is horse dooky before I have hundreds of worshipers staring at the projection screen with that gazed-look in their eyes.
Question: Have you found these Nashville tips to be effective in your songwriting? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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