Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Roadmap to Writing Worship Songs

What makes a worship song a worship song? What differentiates a worship song from a “regular” song? What are the qualities of a good worship song? These are all questions I’ve been chewing on especially as I’ve recently written my first worship song, one that I hope to include on the new rock album.

Let me start out by saying I am no Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman, so my actual experience in writing worship songs is quite limited. However, as a worship pastor, I’ve played and charted a myriad of worship songs, and have observed a number of similarities between them.

Getting From Point G to Point C
To begin, it is a no brainer that most worship songs are simple. As a whole, they tend to be straightforward musically and lyrically. Musically, the chords are most often rather basic. How many worship songs have you heard that use U2’s With or Without You I V vi IV chord progression? (In the key of G, this would be G D Em C) Blessed Be Your Name, Hallelujah Your Love is Amazing, Came To My Rescue, and Majesty (Delirious’ version) are just a few of many examples (mind you, U2 owns no copyright on this chord progression; it’s probably been used in thousands of songs throughout the years).

Have you ever wondered why most worship songs use such elementary chord progressions? My thinking is that this simplicity makes worship songs more accessible to a broad group of church musicians, regardless of skill level. Also, melodies are sometimes easier to write and sing over standard chord progressions. The writers of worship songs may or may not intend to use simple chord progressions, although it’s possible. Sometimes, I wonder if some of the popular worship leaders of our day ever long to add a few major 7, diminished or augmented chords to their songs, only to back down for simplicities’ sake.

Stay Away From The Winding Roads (And The Vocal Acrobatics)
In addition to using simple chord progressions, many worship songs use vocal melodies that are relatively basic. This doesn’t mean that they are bad melodies; they are just limited in their range and in their rhythm, probably so that a wide variety of worshippers can sing along. You just don’t hear many Justin Timberlake or Maria Carey inspired melodies in congregational worship songs. Generally, worship songs aren’t written exclusively for the artist; they are written for the many worshippers who will sing these songs Sunday after Sunday.

The Easy Map Is Quick To Fold, But It May Be Missing Some Streets
Have you ever noticed that most worship songs are lyrically less complicated and less descriptive than your “regular” song? You may enjoy decoding the lyrics of your favorite rock band, but there isn’t a lot of room for lyrical ambiguity when it comes to worship songs (or at least, there shouldn’t be). If I’m singing a worship song, I don’t want to have to guess if the lyrics were written for a girl or for God and I don’t want to wonder what God or god the writer is speaking of. I want to worship the one true God, and the one true Lord Jesus Christ, not some vague god removed from the foundation of scripture. I also don’t want to sing songs that are overly focused on the praise-ie instead of the One being praised (How often do you hear the words “I,” “me” or “us” in some of today’s worship songs?). I believe worship lyrics should be God-centered and clearly defined in message, but that doesn’t mean that worship songwriters need to settle for non-descriptive and/or over-used Christian-speak. I really appreciate how many hymn writers use colorful illustrations and imagery to communicate timeless truths. Some people may go further in arguing that many hymns have a greater concentration of theological content than the standard worship song (although there are also some silly hymns out there including one of my favorites Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition). As a general rule, I would agree that hymns tend to have stronger theological content than most “worship choruses” (as some people call them), although I’m hearing more and more modern worship songs with deep Biblical rooting. I hope we see more of this!

The Simplest Route is Sometimes The Best Route
Don’t get me wrong. Simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of the best songs ever written (worship and non-worship songs) are musically uncomplicated. To be honest, I personally wrestle with writing worship songs just for this very reason. I often want to embellish simple songs when sometimes the best thing to do is to let simple songs stay simple (especially when you’re writing songs that are meant to be sung by others in a church setting). I actually admire artists who can write strong and unique songs that implement simple chords, catchy melodies, and simple yet insightful and Christ-centered lyrics.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Progress of the Album:
The Nashville Hustle (Chapter 9)

Ten Aglow and Three to Go
Well, in less than two months, I should be down in Nashville recording drums and bass (and rhythm guitar) for the new rock album. Crystal and I just returned from a relaxing eight-day trip to San Diego and Laguna Beach (my sister lives there) and now it’s time to get back to work. When I left Columbus, I had completed Nashville number charts for ten of the thirteen songs on the new album (check out the video blogs if you haven’t seen them yet). I am intentionally waiting to create Nashville number charts for three remaining songs as these songs are still under construction. By this, I mean the arrangements are not completely nailed down. To begin, I’m not sure how I’m going to end one of the songs. I was planning to taper the song off with a quiet bridge and a quiet last chorus, but I’m now rethinking things. This particular tune has been a challenge all along as it is a relationship song (these are the toughest ones for me to write) and the topic it is covering is quite delicate and I’m having trouble narrowing down the right closing mood both musically and lyrically (I’m still messing around with the lyrics of the bridge and the last chorus as I’m not sure if I want it to end with a feeling of hope or a feeling of tension). Two other songs I’m reworking are in need of some trimming. The arrangements are just too long and they feel like they are dragging a bit. I will probably end up shortening some of the instrumental sections on these tunes. Besides these three songs, I’m feeling pretty good about the project as a whole. I will be concentrating very heavily upon these three “trouble songs” over the next month or so.

What’s For Tweaking and What’s for Keeping

Tempos, chord progressions, and song arrangements (specifically hits or rhythmic “pushes”) have to be solidified before the rhythmic foundation is laid (in my case, the drums, bass, and rhythm guitar parts recorded on June 18th will be the initial foundation). The next step will be to record real guitars and strings (probably in later summer). After this, a handful of things will be left for tweaking. Lyrics can be changed (if need be) later in the production process, which means lyrics are not currently top priority. I can always tweak a word or two after we’ve tracked all the instruments. Also, synthesizer parts will be for a while secondary in importance. I really like all the synthesizer parts I’ve programmed to date (pads, loops, sound effects, etc.), but these are basically icing on the cake which can be re-visited later if need be. As I approach the recording date in Nashville, I am asking myself, “What things have to be completely ironed out and what things can sit comfortably as variables?” I wouldn’t say I’m nervous, but I’m certainly feeling a pressure with only two months before the big recording session.

Every Penny Counts When You’re Counting on Pennies
Money continues to be a major piece of the whole. I’m still saving up for the trip to Nashville, and thankfully, God has provided several extra music production and haircutting side jobs. I’m thinking I should create an alternate 10x12 Productions logo with the “X” being a pair of scissors.

Up Next… “A Roadmap to Writing Worship Songs”

Monday, April 05, 2010

Progress of the Album: Musicians: Rich Barrett

There were several people who played extremely significant musical roles in the production of my 2004 rock album Backstage Pass. One of those was my good friend Rich Barrett. Rich arranged the string parts for Hurricane, After Everything, A Thousand Gods, and By Now and directed the string players during the recording session at DarkHorse Recording in 2003. In addition, Rich played piano and organ throughout the project, and translated all of my chord charts into sheet music that was used by the studio musicians. I’m excited to say that Rich is again involved in my new project! Currently, he is working on the string arrangement for the second track on the album, a song that may very possibly be the album single. I’m anxious to hear what he comes up with!

Recently, I’ve been busy reading my Logic Pro manual trying to figure out the process of translating my chord charts to sheet music (as Rich did on Backstage Pass). It is quite a learning curve! Thankfully, Rich has kindly given me some pointers (as he works in Logic as well). Wow, it’s a lot of work! I now realize how much effort he put into getting all our ideas down on paper! So far, I’ve created music for the drum and bass parts of one song, and am just starting my second song. 12 songs to go!

These pictures were all taken in October 2003 during the recording of Backstage Pass.

Scroll down to read about my talented friend Matt Meyer, who will be playing guitar on the new album.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Purpose of Music (part 1)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an analyzer. When other people appear to just do things, I often find myself asking why I do the things I do before I do them and while I’m doing them. This is probably one reason I often have trouble fitting in. I like to dissect thoughts, emotions, and the world around me, but not everyone wants to stop running the rat race long enough to ponder the underlying purposes of why we as humans go such distances to accomplish this or that. That’s probably a good thing. If we were all analyzers, we’d never get anything done.

I want to live my life with a big picture in mind. I can become very discouraged and frustrated when I don’t have a direction, and when I don’t feel like I’m going somewhere. There are times when I just need to re-envision the over arching reasoning behind my pursuits, both as a Christian, and as a musician. I suppose this is one of those times.

As a Christian, it’s hard for me to separate my music from the responsibility I have to glorify God. That means I would have a tough time writing lyrics that contradict what I believe about Jesus Christ. However, I do wrestle with the question whether every song I write needs to explicitly communicate a thought about Jesus. Is it possible for a Christian to write songs that are glorifying to God without ever mentioning God? Take for example a Christian who writes a love song for his wife. When it comes to human love between two people, is it always necessary for a Christian musician to bring God into the lyrical foreground? Is it possible that the expression of love between a married man and woman can in itself bring glory to God?

What defines a song as Christian or non-Christian? According to the Bible, we know how a person becomes a Christian (he/she must accept Jesus Christ as his/her Savior – John 3:16, Romans 10:9), but how does a song become “Christian”? Are words what set a Christian song apart from a non-Christian song? The birds and fish don’t say a lot verbally, but doesn’t the Bible say that they bring glory to God (Psalm 8)? Certainly, we are different than any other creature as we can create, love, and exchange thoughts and feelings with one another. Maybe if the fish could sing, they would constantly talk of God and His majesty... or maybe they would just swim around most of the time showing off their God-painted colors, speaking of their Creator in wisdom, clarity, and at the appropriate moment. Who knows? I guess what I’m wresting with here is the definition of “glorifying God.” Shouldn’t we as Christians be glorifying God continually whether we’re singing a song or not? When we go to work, should we talk about Jesus all the time, or should we focus on being honest and conscientious employees, knowing that we are stewards and have a greater boss above who we’re seeking to please?

Music is such a powerful tool. With it, we can honor God or dishonor God. I suppose one question I’m asking myself right now is how candid I should be about my own doubts and frustrations, and what point is self-expression too far removed from God-expression. What do you think? Can a Christian song express doubt, frustration, or even anger? Can you think of any writers in the Bible who poured out their hearts to God without reserve?