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July 26, 2010

How to Write a Great Worship Song

Step 1: Acknowledge that there's no 'how-to' to creativity, says modern hymn writer Keith Getty

The following originally posted at Ancient Evangelical Future:

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At the recent National Worship Leaders Conference, Irish songwriter Keith Getty began his workshop by telling those who had come to learn how to write a great worship song to leave. “Because art is the expression of life, you cannot ‘how-to’ creativity.”

Getty collaborates with his wife Kristyn and friend Stuart Townend. “They’re the words and I’m the music,” he says, estimating that somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of the words of any of their songs are his. “But we both get involved on both sides.”

Here are ten notable and worthwhile ideas edited and distilled from Getty’s workshop comments:

1. The primary form we use is the story form. The gospel is primarily story. How do you take people who want 4-line worship songs and get them to sing 32 lines? By structuring the song as a story.

2. It is important to look at things that are harrowing and that don’t necessarily make us feel happy. The central core of the Christian faith is not something that makes us happy. We need to acknowledge our need for a redeemer. The reason we worship is that we meet God through the central story of the cross.

3. We need lament. But if you want to write lament, remember that a successful lament resolves. Not into a happily-ever-after ending, but like the psalms of lament, by ultimately acknowledging that God is God.

4. To write strong melodies remember that folk melody has to be passed on orally (aurally). I try to write songs that can be sung with no written music. I imitate Irish folk melody, with a great deal of contour, of rise and fall.

5. Use pastors and theologians as resources for your writing. But keep company with them. Don’t just ask them to fix your text here or there when you’re done with it.

6. Trinitarian worship safeguards us from so many problems our worship can get into: either an overly stern view of god or a casual view of god. Both can lead to problems in our lives.

7. Martin Luther is one of ten people from history I would want to have coffee with. I have looked at a lot of Luther’s hymns and emulated him. First, Luther had a high view of redemption. He also believed we live our lives in the midst of spiritual warfare. Thirdly, he had a high view of the church and a high vision of the church.

8. The congregation is the choir and it is merely the privilege of those of us who are musically gifted to help them sing.

9. Lyrics and great writing are the same thing. Lyricism is poetry. If your write lyrics, read as much poetry as you can. Lyricists are people who love words and do crossword puzzles.

10. Growing up, I never listened to pop music as a child. I was steeped in church music. That could be a blessing because everything I write can be sung by a congregation.

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Christianity Today interviewed the Gettys in 2008.

Learn more about the Gettys’ work at their website.

Comments

Great insights. Thanks!

Although, I had an awful time singing "church music" (hymns) growing up. The range was often much too great (on both low and high ends) and always in the wrong key for me (I'm a baritone). The simplifying of hymn melodies for modern worship is a welcome development to me.

Keep writing great songs, Gettys. You're a true blessing to the Church!

Fantastic article! Your points positively address several of the criticisms many of us make (too easily, no doubt) about much contemporary worship music. I'd add that the in the WE/THOU relationship essential to worship, the emphasis is better kept on the THOU. Of course some wonderful hymns do begin "I" or "We", but a focus on God is sorely wanted in some quarters.

Unfortunately, it mustn't be too difficult. If you can put together 2 or 3 lines, then all you have left to do is repeat them 15 times and you're there!

GH, you either didn't read the article or you don't know Keith Getty's work. Probably both.

Sorry, I meant Cliff, not GH.

Maybe Cliff said that with tongue in cheek?

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