Some questions to help you evaluate songs.

A key exercise to helping you grow in your songwriting is to evaluate the great ones.   Where do you start?  How do you evaluate a song?  Here are a few questions that may help.  I’m sure there are plenty of others, so see this as a start and add your own as they come to mind.

Melody Questions

1.  What song structure did the composer implement?

2.  How many bars are in each song section (Verses, Chorus, Bridge)?

3.  What is the meter for each line of the song?

4.  Does the Chorus melody start out higher or lower than the Verses?

5.  Does the melody contain a unique hook anywhere in the song?  How many bars/syllables are in the hook?

6.  How much melodic repetition was used, and where?

7.  Are the melodic and rhythmic repetitions exact, or are the phrases similar?

8.  Is the melody comprised of notes that are close to each other…2nds and 3rds, etc.?  Are there pleasing, unexpected intervals in the melody?

9.  Are there varied rhythms in the different sections of the song?

10. What is the range of the song?

11.  Is this a melody you could envision millions of worshippers to wanting to sing?

Lyric Questions

1.  Does the song have an interesting title?  Is the idea fresh?

2.  Does it have a universal theme?  …something that most people can relate to?

3.  Do the verse lyrics clearly lead to the title?

4.  Is there one consistent verb tense throughout the song?

5.  Are consistent pronouns used?

6.  Do the opening lines of the different sections “grab” the listener and set an emotional tone?

7.  Is there a consistent tone and style throughout the song?

8.  Are detail, action, and fresh imagery used?

9.  Is the lyric conversational, or hymn-like in style?

10. Are there any clichés…overused phrases?

11. Is there a lyrical hook?

12. Is the lyric redundant anywhere?

13. Does the second Verse add new information?

14. Does the Bridge (if applicable) add a new angle to the song?

15. Does each line logically flow into the following line?

16. What is the rhyme scheme of the lyric?

17. When reading the lyric, does it’s emotional tone match it’s melodic tone?

18. Are the words properly placed in the melody so as to preserve the proper stresses of the word?  Prosody…

19. Does the lyric, apart from the music, inspire you to worship God?

What Makes A Great Congregational Worship Song?

A few posts back we mentioned the key characteristics of a great congregational worship song.  We used the acronym SUMAC (SMAK U or MUSAK) to help us remember the key concepts.  Not every song that is considered “great” will have the maximum intensity in each of these characteristics, but they all will a combination of these that makes the song work.   They are:

S is for Skillfully written.  (uses devices and methods proven to impact people). 

U is for Universal (the average person can identify with it).

M is for Message (content/biblical truth).

A is for Accessible (the average person can easily learn it).

C is for Creative (something in the song, music and/or lyrics, moves people).

Let’s look a little more in depth at our first characteristic, Skillfully written.  Part of the journey in growing as a songwriter is learning the devices and methods that have been proven over time to help your song impact people.   These devices can be something we intuitively incorporate during the creative process (like a good hook) to something we intentionally incorporate during the editing phase, like making sure our syllables and rhyme schemes are consistent.   Growing in skill is a life long endeavor on the part of the songwriter.  Two key things you can do to keep growing is:

  1. Keep a notebook (or spreadsheet or Word doc) of devices, methods and ideas you read about, hear about or learn from listening to other songs.  Try to have this notebook available for you to review from time to time for ideas.  There are so many possibilities that you will unlikely remember every one, so write them down and refer to them as needed.
  2. Evaluate great songs.  This is not only a great teaching tools for observing the elements that made the song a success, but it also develops your “inner editor” that will help you in evaluating and improving your own songs.

Watering Your Lyrical Seeds

So you’ve come up with a title you like.  You have your “seed”.  How do you get it to “sprout a bit”?   There are several exercises that can be used in creative writing which are very helpful in songwriting as well.   Try one or more of these.  You’ll likely find some more fruitful than others, but they’ll all worth a try.

1. Clustering or cluster writing – This involves writing your title (or subject matter) in the middle of a blank page and circling it.  Then write around your main idea whatever words or phrases come to mind.  Don’t evaluate what you’re writing at this point.  Just let the thoughts flow.  Once you’ve exhausted those ideas, brainstorm on your outer circle of words and write down a few new ideas for each of those words.  When you’re done you’ll likely have twenty or more potential words for your song.  Now evaluate and pick the best ones.

2. Outline your song – Many times you can outline your song with a short description of what the verses and chorus should say.  If you’re inspired by a book or sermon the thoughts are often already organized for you.  This “big picture” approach may not give you the exact words, but it will help you stay on track as you make choices about your specific word choices and lyric flow.

3.  Ask yourself questions.  This often stimulates ideas and helps to clarify your thoughts.  Here are some examples of what may be helpful:

a. In one sentence, what is this song about?

b. What key thought or truth impacts me?

c. How does this truth affect the way I think?

d. How does this truth affect the way I live?

e. What emotion does this truth evoke in me?

f. How should I respond to the truth?

g. How might this truth help someone going through trials?  (Dealing with failures, fears, struggles with sin, pain of loss and sorrow,      disappointments, God seeming distant, the constant pressures of life)

4. Read a book or listen to music with pen in hand.  Often others’ thoughts can stimulate our creative ideas.

That’s all for now.  Let me know which of these work best for you.

How long does it take to write a song?

How long does it take write a song?   The short answer, as long as it takes to make it the best it can be.  On a rare occasion a song will come in a small window of time.  Around 90% of the first song that Vikki and I ever had published (Great Are You, Lord) came in about thirty minutes.  It was almost like a gift, but other songs have been years in the making.  Ours’ would be a fairly common experience among songwriters.  In the book God Songs, Tim Hughes is quoted as saying that Here I Am To Worship took about nine months to finish.  Every song has it’s own timetable.

Paul Baloche uses a “greenhouse” analogy to communicate how he will review song ideas from time to time and see which seeds are growing.  The concept is to work on your moments of captured inspiration and see if you can develop it further.  If not, it goes back into the “greenhouse” for another day.  No idea is thrown away; just saved for later.

At this point, it might be helpful to look at the roles of inspiration and  perspiration in our songwriting.   We are inspired by truth that is unchanging (character of God, scripture, etc.), but our expression of that truth is not infallible.  Our songs are written in our vocabulary and musical preferences that are a reflection of our ability, not God’s.  We usually need to work hard to make a song the best that it can be and even then, it is not perfect.  Our perspiration will help make the truth that was our inspiration more real to people that experience the song.

Finding the Seeds

Before we take a look at “song seeds” let me give credit where credit is due.  Much of what we are sharing is a combination of our experiences and the books we have read about songwriting through the years.  In particular, I will share a number of ideas found in the book God Songs by Paul Baloche and Jimmy & Carol Owens.  It is simply the best book on writing songs for your church.  You can get a copy at or Amazon.

A couple of questions we often get about songwriting are:  What comes first the music or lyrics?  and Where do the ideas come from?   They are both asking how to begin a song.   Although songwriting involves principles and devices, it is more art than science and as such there are a number of ways to get to the goal of “a great song.”  For most people a song begins with a “seed idea.”  This idea can be a lyric, a title, a melodic idea, even a feel or riff.  It is a moment of inspiration that will grow (hopefully!) into a full song.  Usually, the stronger the seed, the stronger the song.  As songwriters we need a way to capture the inspiration whether it is written or recorded.  (most computers and mobile phones can do both.)

Ideas are all around us.  Here are a few places we may find them:

  1. A sermon
  2. A book
  3. A time of worship
  4. Meditating on scripture or biblical truth
  5. Singing scripture
  6. Singing your prayers
  7. Free singing or experimenting with melodic phrases
  8. A specific song need
  9. Listening to music
  10. A conversation.

Keep an eye out for those seeds.

When the moment of inspiration arrives capture it, if at all possible.  I don’t know how many times I have had ideas that I really liked, but couldn’t remember a few days later and never “captured” it.   Don’t assume you be able to remember it.   Harvest it!

Some thoughts on “watering our seeds” in the next post.

A peek at the “big picture.”

For the next several posts we’d like to take a “big picture” look at what makes a great worship song.  By the term “great worship song” we mean a song that has broadly impacted the church by helping people know and love God better and been a means for helping them express their affection for Him.

So what makes a great worship song great?  Great question!   Congregational songwriting is not a science.  It is a blend of characteristics that work together to make it successful.  The amount of the characteristic will vary from song to song, but in the end they are all there and necessary.   One way to help you recall these is to think of the acronym SUMAC (or SMAC U. if you prefer).

S is for Skillfully written.  (uses devices and methods proven to impact people). 

U is for Universal (the average person can identify with it).

M is for Message (content/biblical truth).

A is for Accessible (the average person can easily learn it).

C is for Creative (something in the song, music and/or lyrics, moves people).

The “chemistry” between these characteristics is different in every song.  The ideal song would be excellent in all of these areas, but, in truth, most are stronger in some more than others, but strong enough that it works well.  Having an understanding of these characteristics will help you in evaluating songs, both yours and others.  And the ability to evaluate songs will make you a better songwriter.  

What is this?

Hi Guys!

Thanks for taking a look at our blog, “Songwriting for Worship.”   Our hope is to pass along things that have been helpful to Vikki and I as songwriters and to encourage you to write more and increasingly better songs for congregations to sing.  We’ll be doing a combination of longer posts with some tidbits that’ll take 15 seconds to read.   We’ll also have a section where we’ll answer questions you submit regarding songwriting.  Let us know your thoughts as to what is helpful and feel free to start submitting questions.  We’ll do our best to serve you and help you in your songwriting!