Category: Methods


As an avid student of the craft of songwriting, I am on a constant quest for insight on how to write better songs. I often ask other songwriters about their methods. Since I believe in the principle of sowing and reaping, I shared at last month’s Florida Christian Songwriters meeting (Jan. 2012) the process I used to write the song I sang at the meeting, “You Love Me”(and gave a shout out to MasterWriter for their great program). I also recognize that God has made each of us unique, and what works for me, may not work for everyone. In fact, I have used many different processes in writing my own songs. Bottom line: there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to write a song.

That being said, if we take songwriting out of the realm of the mysterious, something we do only when inspiration strikes and continue only as long as inspiration lasts, and put it into the realm of the practical, considering it an activity we can do at any time whether inspiration is present or not, we find there are some helpful guidelines for writing a song. In his book, Song Writing – A Complete Guide to the Craft songwriter and songwriting instructor Stephen Citron offers a six step process.

Step one is to create the title idea. In other words, determine what your song is about and narrow down that concept into a catchy title. (See my post – “What’s the Point”) Next, set the title to music. Try to capture the essence of the title in the music. A great example is “Maria” from West Side Story. Notice the emotion and sense of longing created with just three notes. (For you theory buffs, it is an augmented 4th followed by a minor 2nd. The tritone begs to be resolved.) If you missed the fact that you’ve just written your hook, you should read my post, “Hook ‘em, Danno”. Next, complete the lyrics for the first section then set it to music. Now create a second set of lyrics that matches the first with regards to line length, rhythmic stress and rhyme scheme and which further communicates the concept of the song. Examine your song to see if it needs a contrasting section like a bridge. If so, write the lyrics then set them to music. Continue this process until you complete the song.

I would add a seventh step – pray! Since as Christian songwriters we write every song to the glory of God, we should pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as we acknowledge our dependence on God throughout the process. Remember we have nothing that we have not received (I Cor. 4:7), and every good and perfect gift comes from above (James 1:17).

But don’t wait for inspiration to come before you write. That’s like waiting to be inspired to read your Bible or pray or worship God. If we step out in obedience and start to write a new song, we can trust God to faithfully guide us every step of the way.

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On the Right Track

As we approach the New Year, most of us seem intent on setting goals and making resolutions in hopes they will bring us greater fulfillment and success; so it seemed like a good time to talk about our goals as songwriters. What do you want to accomplish as a songwriter? What are your goals for the songs you have written? Have you ever really thought about your songwriting goals?

First, let’s look at you—the songwriter. What does it mean to be a real songwriter? Do you see yourself as one? I love what Robert Sterling says in his book The Craft of Christian Songwriting: “If you write songs on a regular basis—whether or not you make any money from the effort, whether or not you receive any recognition from others, and whether or not the songs are any good—in my estimation, you are a songwriter.”

So, what kind of songwriter are you, or more importantly, what kind of songwriter do you want to be? One way to know is to determine your audience. Are you writing for yourself, others, God? There is nothing wrong with writing songs just for yourself, for your own enrichment; after all, songwriting is a wonderful form of self-expression and the act itself is immensely beneficial. Writing songs to sing to God is a timeless manner of worship; one the saints and angels will joyfully employ for all eternity! However, if you are writing for a broader, human audience, especially if you are seeking fame or financial gain for your efforts, then you will need to take a serious approach to develop the craft of songwriting. It’s not that God deserves less than our best, it’s just that as a loving parent, He is delighted with our childish attempts in a way others will not appreciate.

This leads us to the second question: what are your goals for your songs? Have you ever really thought about setting goals for individual songs? Do you see yourself performing your song live? Do you want to record it yourself or would you like another artist to record it? Who do you hear singing your song? Will you market your song on iTunes or on your own website? Can you imagine hearing your song on the radio? Can you picture yourself winning a Dove Award for your song? Sound far-fetched, crazy, beyond your wildest dreams? Perhaps, but is it any more crazy than to keep writing songs and have no idea why you’re doing it? Remember, “If you shoot for the stars and miss, at least you’ll hit the moon.” However, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”

So here’s your assignment: Determine your purpose as a songwriter. If you are writing solely for yourself, or as a form of communion with God, then keep it up. If, however, you are writing songs to minister to others or for others to sing to God in corporate praise, then perhaps it is time to set some goals to become the best songwriter you can be. Read books, attend workshops, collaborate with others, master the art of songwriting. Also, take inventory of your songs and decide which ones are worth promoting, then implement a plan to take each song as far as it can go. Let’s start this New Year by getting our songs on the right track.

Let’s Get Together

There is nothing quite as frightening yet potentially rewarding as collaboration. It is scary enough to share your finished song with the world, but to reveal your rough ideas, your unpolished phrases to another person can be incredibly intimidating.

So why do it? Because creativity thrives in a collaborative community. One idea sparks another, which can lead to an entirely new direction for the song than could be realized individually. The fulfillment that comes through teamwork and the opportunity it provides for growth as a songwriter, far outweight the risks.

While it’s true that a solitary songwriter can compose a good song, far more hit songs have been composed by songwriting duos than by individuals (as have most of the great hymns of the church). So why not take a chance and give it a try?

In his book, The Craft of Christian Songwriting, Robert Sterling shares some ideas on collaborative relationships. First, you should look for a “well-matched co-writer”—someone whose abilities complement your own. Although there are numerous variations on the actual interaction (lyricist and tunesmith, big picture and detailed craftsman, starter and finisher) the relationship should include two key elements—creative chemistry and mutual respect. While listening to a prospective collaborator’s songs, if you think, “I wish I’d written that,” then you have the second ingredient. The only way to determine if you have chemistry is to go on that “first date”. Try to write a song together and see if you hit it off.

Once you’ve found a potential collaborator, there are several steps you can follow to help ensure a successful songwriting session. First, if you don’t know your collaborator well, have a pre-session get together to get to know one another prior to your writing session. It’s easier to be open with a friend than it is with a stranger. When you do meet, come prepared. Bring several ideas with you. This is much easier than starting from scratch. Choose one idea (hopefully one you’re both excited about) and work on it together. Remember, there are no wrong ideas, especially in the brainstorming stage. Be honest, yet kind. If you don’t like your co-writer’s idea, offer an alternative. When your collaborator has a brilliant idea, be sure to tell him so. Be generous with your praise, your ideas, (don’t save the best ones for yourself) and the credit.

So where do you find a collaborator? You can start where you are, in your local church, with other members of your praise team or worship band. You can also find collaborators through your local songwriters guild or Christian Songwriters Association. Of course, your collaborator doesn’t have to live in the same town, or state or country for that matter, thanks to Steve Jobs and Al Gore. You can collaborate with songwriters all over the world without leaving the comfort of your own home.

So go to your local songwriting group, check out original music from artists on sites like Reverbnation, or join an online community like Songwritingfever—let’s get together and write some great music.