Last week I wrote an article about why I think every worship leader and Christian musician should be a songwriter. I’m not a songwriting expert, and I’m not the guy who’s going to tell you how to write the best songs. But if you are looking to write songs as a spiritual discipline, then I have a few simple steps for implementing this into your private worship that have worked for me. Every songwriter has a different process and might tell you something different, but here are some tips I would give to someone who is just getting started:
1. Start with God’s Word
That might sound obvious or cliche, but it’s kind of the whole point of writing for spiritual formation. Spend a few minutes reading a passage of Scripture. Read a Psalm or a chapter from the New Testament. Read it again. Understand it. Mediate on it. What is the context in which the author was writing? What was he trying to communicate, and how does this apply to us in 2022? Since worship is always a response to something, it makes sense that we first listen.
2. Sing a prayer of response
I heard Paul Baloche once say that the best way to write a song is to sing your prayers. I agree. Though every song won’t be a prayer, this is a good place to start. After chewing on a passage of Scripture, find a line, a metaphor, or a thought, and turn it into a prayer of response. Add a melody to your prayer. Let it match the emotion of what you’re talking about. There will be lots of mumbling and gibberish. That’s okay. Embrace it. Songwriting is a vulnerable thing.
3. Start simple
Keep singing or humming that melody. If you have two lines of lyrics but don’t know what else to say, just hum until God gives you the words to say. If you get stuck, go back and read that passage of Scripture again. If you still don't know what to say, just come back to that part later. Don’t worry about song structure or sections… just start with a simple chorus. Sing in a range that’s comfortable for you, and sing something that makes you feel.
4. Don’t be afraid to lose it
As a rule of thumb for songwriting, If you have an idea for a song, record it. You won’t remember it later. However, when you sit down to write, don’t worry too much about trying to record every iteration right away. I know the fear is that if you don’t record it you won’t remember what you just sang. But think of it in a different way. Instead of being afraid to lose it, keep singing until you can’t forget it. Your song is going to change every time you sing it until eventually something sticks. That’s when you know it’s time to record it on your phone.
5. Writing is Re-writing
I think it was John Mayer who said, “There are no bad songs; only unfinished ones.” I heard someone else once say that songwriting is like mining for gold; you have to dig through a lot of dirt to find it. Hold everything loosely. If you have a favorite part of the song you’re writing, build around that part. If you don’t like the way something sounds or feels, just scrap it and try something different. After you’ve written a chorus, go back and pick your least favorite part. Re-write that part. Maybe it just needs a different line or a different word. Re-write until you like it. If you don’t like any of it, then start over. Maybe pick a different key to write in or a different tempo. Writing requires patience. It’s a process. Don't be surprised if something sticks with you for the rest of the week. That's a good sign of gold.
For my non-instrument-playing worship leaders friends out there, here are a couple of resources that might help underscore your writing sessions without having to fumble through piano chords:
The TONALY app is a great app for playing block chords in any key with the touch of a button. This is also a great app for learning scales and chords. I use this app all the time.
Another great resource is a drone pad. Joshua J Gartner has a playlist on Youtube with droning pads in every key. This is a helpful tool, especially if you don't play an instrument and don't really want to think about chord progressions.
If you use another tool that would be a helpful resource, feel free to share it in the comments section below.