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Songwriting Workshop 1: Why are you writing?

There may be many things that have made you want to write this song:

  • You may be like Mary on hearing she would be mother to Jesus, and just feel an overwhelming need to praise God.
  • You may be like David, with your world torn apart by strife and sin, desperate to get your soul back on solid ground.
  • You might be bored, and think it's a nice idea to write a pretty song.

Only two of these are good reasons for writing a Christian song. This will be a question on the final exam, so we can't reveal which reason is not very good.

Importance of Passion

The depths of human sin, rebellion, injustice. The heights of divine love, truth, salvation. These are some of the themes at the heart of a great Christian song.

You need to write because your heart has been stirred. It may be a tragic news story on TV, the look in a lonely eye on the bus, your anger at seeing God and his word being misrepresented. It may be in a quiet moment that you catch the tiniest glimpse of how utterly astounding God is, and you need to tell the world.

You need to write because there is a story to be told. There are hundreds of stories of God's faithfulness - and our faithlessness - through the bible. There are dozens of parables, and thousands of other stories, most of them overlooked in contemporary Christian songwriting, but all of them something that God has considered important enough to write down and preserve for us. Then there are the millions of stories happening around you - every face you see could tell a thousand stories if you had the time, and the same pattern of God's love, mercy, justice and faithfulness would be found in every one of them.

You need to write because there is a truth we have forgotten or neglected. We have short memories, and it's easy for us as individuals and as societies to forget what is truly important. And what is truly important is anything that God says is important. When we focus too much on whatever the world around us says is important, we squeeze out the attention we should be paying to God's priorities. If you worship somewhere that the pastor seeks God's priorities for the congregation, look back over the sermon topics for the last year or two. There will be many issues the pastor has felt led to address. You may have heard sermons that touched on charity, on gossip, on personal holiness, on money management, on current social issues, on the great commission, on the ten commandments, on God's endless love but perfect justice. Especially where you and the congregation have felt conviction the Holy Spirit has brought, these are topics where the church needs to be taught or reminded of God's truth. Chances are if you or your congregation needs to hear that, others do too. You may find there are few songs that tackle the tough topics - but if those topics need to be heard, that is an opportunity for you and your song to stand in the gap.

There will be other reasons you need to write as well. As you continue to seek God and his kingdom, God will let you know. Just like Samuel, when God calls you, you need to be willing to say 'Speak Lord, your servant is listening'. And ready to write and sing. Be bold. Be courageous. Sing God's truth for his praise and glory.

Why does the world need your song?

Lots of people are inspired by the Eiffel Tower, even passionate about it. But does the world need yet another picture of it?

Would-be secular songwriters are often discouraged when they take their amazing new song to a publisher only to be told, "We have a drawerful of those already. It wouldn't be fair to take your song when we have so many just like it."

Christian songwriters can face a similar challenge. If your song has already been written a hundred times before, why does it need to be written again? Now there may be a very good reason why that song does need to be written again, but you need to be sure what that reason is before you start writing it for the hundred-and-first time. If the thought is not fresh, if the music is not fresh, if the words are not fresh - does that song need writing at all?

That's not to say that God won't give you songs to sing back to him in praise, and they may sound a lot like someone else's song. But it is to say that some of your songs may not be meant for the church or YouTube - they may just be connections between your heart and God's heart. They are incredibly valuable, irreplaceable, and wonderful. How extravagant God is, that he would share moments with us like that through songs. If they are just songs between you and God, don't worry if they sound like something else or even nothing else. Just enjoy the one-on-one time with your Lord.

But maybe the day you were at the Eiffel Tower, the clouds, the sun, the rain were 'just so'. You'd love for everyone in the whole world to see that amazing sight. That might make yet another picture worth taking. Even if not that spectacular, it would still be your picture of the tower, and that's something. But if it's not exceptional, don't try push it only the cover of Time magazine. It is still inspiring and educational for you to take those songs that might be a bit me-too, work on them, and bring them to their best. After all, you practise on all the me-too pictures so that when the perfect shot presents itself, you'll have the skill to capture it.

While the world may not need any more pictures of the Eiffel Tower, you may be the one to spot the perfect smile on someone's face as they look up at it. The world maybe does need that.

You have a unique view of the world, and you will see things that no-one else has ever seen in quite the same way. Especially when we are thinking of music that relates to God, he is like an infinitely beautiful diamond - there is always another facet that is unique and deserving of praise.

Can you change the world in 3 minutes?

Finally, remember what a challenge you have. You need to do a lot in a very short time.

We are all tempted to write our version of American Pie, and wait for the radio stations of the world to reschedule all their ads because they just love our 10-minute song. The reality is you need to plan for just over three minutes.

  • If you had to give a three minute speech on a crowded bus that would change someone's life, what would you say?
  • If you could only spend two minutes comforting a friend whose sister had died, what would you say?
  • If a child heard your song, and could only remember one important thing from it, what would that be?

If you are going to talk about anything important in your song, you don't have any time, words or notes to waste. You need to focus on one thought, and put everything into communicating that clearly.

You are not going to give a complete panoramic picture of Paris in three verses, even with a superb chorus and a long bridge. But you can give the flavour of Paris by telling them about the wonderful aroma from that baguette you bought at the little bakery near the river. Zoom right in, and find something interesting no-one else will have found.

If you find yourself with several ideas in one song, split them up. You then have the bonus of several more song ideas ready to work on.

If it's a closely related collection of songs, congratulations! Maybe you now have a whole album. But don't try and jam a whole album into one song.

Exercise 1.2

If you haven't already chosen your workshop song, do that now.

You can probably see that a good song to workshop is not necessarily the song with the best riff. You want something you feel passionate about sharing with the world, something with a clear focus, a reason for being, something that matters.

Complete the following sentences. And remember, they're just sentences, not paragraphs or pages. Don't give yourself more than one minute per sentence.

  1. I need to write this song because...
  2. The world needs this new song because...
  3. This song speaks God's truth, as the bible says in...
  4. This song is different from every other song I've heard because...
  5. The one important truth a child could remember from this song is...

If you find that these questions aren't easy to answer, try answering them with another song. Alternatively, write down what it is about your workshop song that would have to be changed so you could answer these questions.

This is what provides the foundation you will need as you refine the lyrics and structure of your song. Make sure you build it well!

Next step: Who are you writing for?

Does the world need another picture of the Eiffel tower? Does it need your song?

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