Okay, here it is! In this three-part post, I want to give you some tools. Some of these tools will help you tweak little details, some install necessary components, and others will help you assess the situation of your music. Each is important to know how to use on each piece of music you make. Ready? It will be fun!
Before I show you the tools, I’d like to point out that there is no section giving you step-by-step instructions on how to write a song. This is because music-making does not necessarily follow a particular order: You may write the words first, or the music first, or simply have a concept first. Some smaller steps must go in order, but we’ll see those as we discuss our toolbox.
So, let’s open the lid and see what tools we have to work on our WORDS!
Of course, we must have words, at least to start with, for our God-honouring songs. The words are the foundation; as pretty as music can be, if it brings to mind no words that instruct us about God and His Word, then the music is just pretty and not edifying (See 1 Cor. 14:7-8). Without words, there is no message. So, to work on our words, we have a few tools:
What is the purpose of the song that we’re writing? This will inform every other part of the words and music. Do we want to express praise for who God is or thanks for what He has done? Do we want to tell a testimony to others of how God has saved, delivered, guided, or provided for us? Do we want to teach ourselves or others a certain verse/passage of Scripture or a truth from the Bible? Do we want to encourage others or warn them? Always work from the purpose of the song that you are writing.
Unquestionably the most important part of the words of a song is the kind of doctrine it is teaching. We always want to be aware of the doctrine we are communicating through music, especially since the words of a song will run through the mind long after the spoken sermon is forgotten. We want to teach things that are true, not things that are either lies, partial-lies (which are still lies), or uncertainties. A good rule of thumb is that if you cannot find it being taught in the Bible (no other books, as good as they may seem), it is a very dangerous thing to include in your songs. Only sing certain truth.
The mood not only goes with the purpose, but it also amplifies it. We might want to write about our salvation, but what kind of mood do we want to portray? Perhaps we want to sound a joyful triumph for our salvation; we would then choose words like, “Oh, victory in Jesus! ….He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood!” Or perhaps we want the song to cause us to reflect within ourselves the sweetness of salvation and the true cost that Christ paid; then we would choose words like, “The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in His day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away.”
Perhaps while singing “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” from the church hymnbook once, you looked down at the bottom of the page and saw all the things written down there; who wrote the music, the words, and who owns the copyright is plain enough to figure out, but what is on the other side? There are some words in all caps that say “WELLESLEY”, and underneath that are the numbers 87.87.
The capital letters indicates the name of the tune. The numbers tell you the meter of the song. Meter is the number of syllables per line in a song. So, using our song, “There’s a Wideness”, the first line has eight syllables. Count them: “There’s a wide-ness in God’s merc-y.” Eight. The second line has seven: “Like the wide-ness of the sea.” There’s your first 87. The last two lines are just the same, 8 and 7. “There’s a kind-ness in His just-ice” is 8, “Which is more than lib-ert-y”, 7.
The meter has to do only with the words and how many syllables there are, so no matter for how many notes we drag out the word “All-e-lu-jah”, it’s still going to count for four syllables in our meter.
This is a really important tool in making music, because it helps us to form unity and cohesion in our poetry. If you were to write out the meter to many popular songs today, you’d end up with a meter like 220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.3.2.8…… You get the point. They’re difficult to sing, especially with a group, because they have no natural and predictable meter upholding them. Meter is a powerful memory tool, as well, and that is why it is fairly easy to remember the words to many old hymns, even if someone helps you start out. Using a consistent meter helps you write good poetry and makes the words sound less strained.
Of course, you can use any numbers in your meter. The most common meter is 86.86. (also called “Common Meter”; it is the meter of Amazing Grace). There is a “Long Meter” (88.88.) and “Short Meter” (66.86.). In the hymnbook that I am referencing, there are all sorts of meters, like 87.87.47, or how about 22.214.171.124! Turn to the back of a hymnbook to the “Metrical Index”, and you will see the section I’m looking at. Now that you know what it means, take a few minutes to look at the meter numbers, find the song they belong to, and count it out.
In the realm of meter, you can be as strict or as creative as you want. But remember that, while some creative meters represent some of the most loved hymns and tunes in the hymnbook, it is also risking, though not necessarily restricting, the song’s stability, predictability, simplicity, and memorability.
In case you haven’t figured it out, I am a language-lover. English was and still is my best subject, although I have come to realize that that is not the case for many other people. However, if you want to write good God-honouring music, you really should put some effort into understanding how your language works. As my husband often says, “Words mean something!” So, if you use words correctly, it belongs to the reader to interpret correctly, and the message will be clearly sent. If you use words incorrectly, the reader is on double duty to translate your words into both what you mean and what you should have said, which more often than not leads to confusion. So, brush up on your English skills!
a. Direct Address and Pronouns
This is an area frequently ignored in music lyrics, so please try to get it right. Direct address occurs when you address someone directly: “Lord, I love You.” As soon as you put this in a song, the mind is automatically painting a subconscious picture of the singer and God facing each other and the singer telling something to God. To use a simple example, if you’re talking to George face-to-face, you don’t say, “I’d like to ask George if I can borrow his car." So, don’t talk to God like that, either: “Lord, I love You, I need You…. I’m asking God to bless me!” It often switches between a verse and a chorus or a refrain, so beware! It’s poor use of pronouns.
b. Verb Tense Agreement
Something similar happens a little less frequently in the realm of verb tenses. I hope you know at least the basic tenses and subconsciously understand how to use all of the tenses. Past, present, and future, represent the basic tenses. For an example, you might want to make a comparison between the way that God has helped you in the past and the way you know He will help you in the future, but don’t hap-hazardously change tenses back and forth: “The Lord has led me, He has never left me, He will provide for me, He has been good to me….” Staying consistent is one of the easiest ways to make good lyrics.
Interjections were included in that part of your language textbook of “other words” that we still don’t know where they go. They include words like “Oh, Hey, Ouch!” I hope you won’t be using “Ouch!” in any hymns you are writing, but “Oh” is a very popular hymn-interjection. “Alas”, is a bit of an older one, along with “Hark”. There are others, but “Oh” has stayed by far the most popular, especially since modern song writers seemingly don’t know how else to use extra syllables; Don’t be lazy and just stick random “oh”s in your lyrics. Every word should have a reason, and “oh” actually has a meaning; t’s not just some noise you can make in-between words.
d. Adjectives and Adverbs
Your definition words can be used so powerfully in word-pictures and descriptions. Think of the beauty in Grant’s use of descriptions in “O Worship the King”:
“O Worship the King, all-glorious above,
and gratefully sing His pow’r and His love;
Our Shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise!”
And while they can be powerful tools to put an image in the singers’ heads, they can also become tedious and meaningless when they are over-used: amazing, great, wonderful, beautiful, broken, surrendered, etc., are used frequently.
Songs do not have to rhyme. There, I got it out of the way. It takes a lot of work to get a good rhyme, and when you only have one month to get out a new album, you don’t have time to rhyme! But many songs made like that are worth about as much in half-pennies as the hours spent writing them. *This is my opinion which you may take or leave.*
While songs are not required to rhyme, it wouldn’t take my finding much evidence to prove that rhyming songs are usually more memorable and well-loved. While it takes more effort to pull off rhyming, it is worth the work, once that perfect rhyming line occurs to you! A good tool to have would be a rhyming dictionary, many of which you can find online (I like rhymer.com).
There are even different ways to rhyme! You can rhyme by sight (blood and good, but in my opinion, that’s not as effective). You can rhyme by sound (good and should). You can double-rhyme (Moses and roses) or triple-rhyme (remember and December)! If you have a word ending in “-ing” or another common suffix, it is a good idea to at least double-rhyme (glancing and trying *technically* rhyme, but it certainly doesn’t sound as good as glancing and dancing). Something to avoid when you are trying to make your lines rhyme is using bizarre words or bizarre sentence structure.
“Christ up on Calv’ry died, so dark;
The Light of life, a contrast stark.
Notice how Bartlett used normal sentence structure along with the rhyme:
“I heard an old, old story
How a Saviour came from glory
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me….”
It is true that most people don’t speak in rhymes, but our lyrics should not be so removed from regular language that it takes a diagramming chart and several dedicated moments to figure out what we’re singing.
You also have the option of using imperfect rhymes, although, they are not as effective as a perfect rhyme. An imperfect rhyme would be manifest by two words that share a similar sound, especially in their vowels, but are not the same sound (examples: hand and can; spent and can’t; God and word; etc.). Since they are easier to come up with and offer a wider spectrum of words to use, imperfect rhyming has become a popular alternative to perfect rhyming; but to me, that is all the more reason to spend the extra time and effort to find a perfect rhyme that fits well! *Another opinion, you know.*
Where to place a rhyme is just as important as what words to rhyme. If you are using a long meter, you might rhyme in couples:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 break
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 take
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 throw
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 know
Or you might rhyme every other line:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 break
1 2 3 4 5 throw
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 take
1 2 3 4 5 know
Typically, if your meter has fewer syllables on the even-numbered lines, you would rhyme every other line. Sometimes, you might rhyme within a line, if you can pull it off:
1 2 3 snake, 5 6 7 break
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 throw
1 2 3 tongue, 5 6 7 young
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 know
Again, whatever rhyming technique you choose, stay consistent! If you rhyme one verse in couples and the next every other line, it would be fragmented and confusing. If you have decided to rhyme in perfect rhymes, don’t get too lazy and throw in imperfect rhymes!
Another literary tool related to rhyming is alliteration, which has to do with the use of the same letters multiple times in a row. For example, “sinful self”, “cross of Calvary”, and “dark and dangerous” are alliterations. Depending on how you use this, this tool can either help a light song skip along the tongue, or it can pound out a slow beat for a reflective or mournful song. Use it with care!
7. Dictionary and Vocabulary
Having a good vocabulary is imperative to writing good lyrics. The fewer words you know, the thinner the stream will be that trickles from your pen onto your paper. Good ways to increase your hymn-writing vocabulary include reading books that use vocabulary slightly more complex than you typically use; looking up words when you are not sure of their meaning; making it a point to use words other than the few you tend to resort to in conversation; singing or reading through hymnbooks; and most importantly, reading the Bible on a regular basis. If you’re going to write something spiritual, then it makes sense to spend time gleaning spiritual insights from the only Book that deals correctly with spiritual truth. What goes in comes out, and if nothing goes in, there will be no return. Reading the dictionary is another option, but not required. J
When choosing a language style for your songs, it may relieve you to know that you don’t need to adopt Shakespeare’s style and change all your “yous” to “thees” and “thous”. Consider your purpose and audience and choose words that are appropriate. Beware of two extremes: One extreme is to write too childishly and simply and to lack substance and depth. The other extreme is to write too sophisticatedly with many large, unfamiliar words and non-personal structure.
Also be careful of using words in ways that are inconsistent with their definitions. For example, if you want to use our word from before, “oh”, and are not sure what it means, the first thing you need to do is look it up in the dictionary. Once you find out what it means, you can use it correctly in your lyrics. [Don’t ignore the definition in your use of a word: it is not your prerogative to use words however you think they should be used, contrary to what social media teaches.]
Another important book (or app) to have available is a thesaurus. This is especially useful when you have a good thought that you want to put into the song, but the only words you can come up with either don’t fit the meter, don’t rhyme, or are cheesy. Instead of continually using the word “amazing”, you can allow the thesaurus to teach you alternate words like astounding, marvelous, or surprising. It will also give you antonyms, which could open up a whole new world of expression to your thoughts. Instead of saying that Christ is victorious over death, you can use the antonym to say that death could not defeat Christ.
9. Cohesion of thoughts
When you come to the end of your lyrics, you should be able to look over them and follow a theme. Every phrase should contribute to the overall theme. Maybe you are telling a story; then your cohesion would be seen in telling the story in order as well as only sharing the details and commentary that have to do with your point. If you are teaching the truth of God’s eternal dominion over all things, avoid putting in a phrase about the believer’s need to avoid temptation; it may be a different good truth to teach, it may fit the meter and even rhyme, but think for a minute about what that has to do with the theme! Maintain cohesion in your lyrics, and when you finish writing, go back over it to make sure it still follows the theme.
10. Doctrine again
While you are checking for cohesion, check again for doctrinal accuracy. You never know what could happen between the beginning and end of your lyrics, what with all that meter-fitting and rhyme-making! Whatever you do to make it rhythmic, don’t sacrifice the truth for smooth-sounding poetry.
So now you have in your music-making toolbox a bunch of word-working tools! Practice with them. As you learn to use what you have, you’re sure to pick up a few more tools along the way. Have fun, but most of all, glorify God! We'll talk about some tools we have to work on our tunes next time.
Soli Deo Gloria!