What Makes A Worship Song Singable? [Q&A]
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As a songwriter living in South Africa, I am exploring the dynamics of congregational singing. Now I note that you promote individual singer-songwriters. I am not one of those. I specialize in writing the lyrics, and can set them to a tune, which is then arranged and harmonized by a competent composer in the United Kingdom.
Can you help me identify WHAT MAKES A SONG SINGABLE BY THE CONGREGATION?
It is my observation that a good Performance Song does not necessarily make a good Participation Song. What are the ingredients that make it easy for the congregation to sing the song, say, after three tries/exposures?
Great question! As songwriters, we recognize that there is a “craft” to writing. That is, it involves work! As a songwriter for the church, I’d argue that this challenge is somewhat amplified.
Writing Christian songs as a reflection of personal praise to Jesus (which is awesome!) is not always the same as writing a congregational worship song. And I think this difference is the core of what you’re asking. So, what makes a song congregational? Well, there is some subjectivity here (ok, a lot of subjectivity!), so take the following as some guidelines, and how it manifests in your songs can vary.
1. Catchy, memorable melody – or “hook.”
Basically, the song has to “grab” the individual. It is hard to sing along to a boring song. So, a melody that is both catchy and memorable will help a ton. I don’t have any handy scientific evidence to back this up, but I would suggest that a strong melody, as well as dynamic instrumentation, are some of the top factors that help us remember a song.
Being able to remember and memorize a song goes a long way in someone feeling comfortable singing along. So look for ways to build a melody with nice movement, and try to inject some changes (movement) that change it up from sounding like other songs.
2. Not too wordy. The human mouth can only spit out a certain number of syllables in a given timeframe without getting all jumbled up. We need to remember that we’re writing these songs for the church to sing. And the church, no matter the size or geography of the church, likely includes people with less than average singing ability. So, we need to make sure the lyrical flow, in terms of how it is physically sung, is not too crazy or complicated.
3. Cadence/Delivery. This is similar to not being too wordy, but is more about how the lyrics are delivered, vocally. The melody is somewhat different, as you can (theoretically) have an overall melody stay the same whether you’re delivering 5 words or 15. Having too many lyrics is one thing, but it’s possible to deliver fewer lyrics in a rushed way as well. I would also throw in here the accents and timing of the lyrics and syllables.
I’ll give a personal example: There is a secular song called “Unconditional” by Katy Perry that is popular right now. Generally speaking, it’s a catchy pop tune and has been successful due to that. However, the chorus has a unique delivery on the word “unconditional.” It is broken apart into individual syllables, with the melodic accents and timing varying on each syllable. Why wouldn’t this work as a congregational song (among other reasons, of course…)? Because we typically say the word one way, but are singing it in a drastically different way. This can be true for any lyric in our songs.
4. Theology. Ok, so none of us want to write a theologically inaccurate song. But, we need to remember that there may be some theological differences (hopefully only on minor issues) from church to church, or even from person to person within our own church. Just be mindful of that, and try to write lyrics that theologically match the body you’re writing for.
These four points are typically the main things that come to my mind when I am aiming for a congregational song. There are other things that go into it, of course, but if you can nail these four, I think you’ve got a solid head start.
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