In John 4:24, Jesus expresses the often reiterated words “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in Spirit and in truth”. As writers that place words in the mouth of the Church, we must be committed to discovering and expounding truth. The Church needs to sing the bible. Our words and thoughts are important, but they must be grounded in a higher authority. All of the songs we sing in church now go through a lyric approval process to test and critique the theological accuracy of our songs – this is incredibly important for us. All of the great hymns and influential contemporary songs have strong echoes or verbatim usage of scripture. Don’t forget Jesus! He said that He was the “way, the truth and the life”. True Christian worship must involve the reality and centrality of Jesus.
The great lyrical tutor Pat Paterson describes a well written lyric as one which could be naturally spoken. Following that analogy with phrasing and metaphor is also helpful. A clunky or long phrase that is difficult or awkward to say will be difficult to sing. Then one must consider melodic structure and range. Cleary the more achievable and perhaps narrow the range, the more likely the song can be comfortably sung by both men and women, and the less proficient vocalists among us.
Just as authenticity is important in the words that we write aligning with the way we live, so to it is important that what we are singing/saying musically aligns. A lyric about the awful brutality of the crucifixion will not readily be placed to a bright and bouncing melody. Prosody is about writing a lyric and melody that feels authentic. Does the melody want to say what the lyric is saying?
One of the most common traps in songwriting is not providing enough contrast within a song. Light and shade provides ongoing interest. Perhaps the melody in the verse is spacious, descending and narrow.. If this leads into a chorus that is also spacious, descending and narrow, the song will tire quickly. Hooks become very important. Each section of the song should have a hook or its own personality (preferably an affable and charismatic one). There should be something to look forward to in each section of the song. We need to get the balance right without overdoing it. Continuity is the counterbalance to contrast. We often sing the same songs in our churches for years. So we need to try to write interesting and robust melodies that can stand up to years of road-testing.
Another common trap is the desire to summarise each book of the bible in every song. (I guess this is still better than no semblance of biblical reference). But our goal should be that each song has its own theme and unique articulation. We should be able to succinctly explain what the song is specifically about. Sometimes even beautiful and brilliant lyrics get lost in a song that has no clear thematic direction.
By way of example, Reuben and I wrote a song called “Stronger”. The song is about the strength of the cross and resurrection to make us right before God (redemption and resurrection). The initial verse lyric read “You defend the innocent”, the final lyric being “You’re my hope and my defence“.. Both are true, though as pointed out by Robert Fergusson (who is the gate-keeper of lyrical integrity), in the thematic context, the later is more true, or at least makes more sense. When talking about the fact that outside of Christ we are all guilty, it is out of place to refer to the defence of the innocent.. In that context, none of us are innocent except Christ Himself. Without further labouring the example. Hopefully you see the point. Theme matters greatly. Again, look at all of the great songs that have stood the test of time – they invariably have a strong theme and consistent message.