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Songwriting Workshop 2: Lyrics

Welcome back! Come on in - it's great to see some new faces have joined us!

We've had some time to reflect on our first session, where we looked at the foundation for our song. We'll be building on that now, as we jump right in to our second workshop session on Christian songwriting.

Where next?

The successful commercial songwriter Sammy Cahn was asked, "What comes first: Music or lyrics?"

Sammy's answer? "The phone call."

Cahn knew there has to be a reason behind every song. Lyrics are not the true starting point of a song, and neither is music. Cahn would receive that phone call, and he'd write what he was asked to write. His songs were in response to that call.

Not every song is a result of a phone call, but many still begin with a call. The writer sees, knows, touches, or feels something - something that needs to be told, something that needs to be heard.

The 'call' is especially important for the writer of a Christian song, because there is something from God that needs to be told, something from God that needs to be heard. As we develop our lyrics, we need to keep checking back against our call. If we stay focused on answering the call, God's message will come through. That doesn't mean a song can't develop in a different direction - sometimes we need to begin writing the song to understand what the call truly is. We want to be free, but not aimless.

Last session, we started with our call. We learned the importance of making sure we are ready to write, we have a reason to write, and we know who we are writing for. There's a message from God that someone in the world needs, and we have been prepared, positioned and privileged to write it.

So what does come next, music or lyrics?

Different songwriters work in different ways. Pure music without words can communicate a lot. You may already have a motif or a melody in mind. That music is appropriate in your mind because it sets the right mood for the message you can feel, but maybe haven't put into words yet. But ultimately, the main way you will successfully communicate a clear message is in your lyrics.

We're going to focus this whole session on lyrics, but even then, we can't cover everything. Standalone lyrics might be something more like poetry - and we are aiming for a song. Our lyrics will connect to music through the structure, rhythm, harmony and melody of our song. These musical elements will cause us to refine our lyrics so we bring everything into a unified song. Our song will be good if the words support the music, and the music supports the words. A really good song forms a perfect whole.

So while we're starting with lyrics, perhaps the real answer to the question of which comes first, music or lyrics, the answer is maybe 'both', or 'neither'. You'll have your own way of working, but our answer for now is going to be 'one, then the other, then the first again, and back and forth as often as necessary until it's done'.

This iterative songwriting process means we'll be covering lyrics now, but we'll be returning them again in a later session too.

Lyrics, Great Lyrics, and Christian Lyrics

Anyone can write lyrics. Writing great lyrics is harder.

There are many great books that can help us get closer to writing great lyrics. You should check out some of the best, and add a couple to your library (we'll have a handout of some recommendations at the end). There is no way in one or two sessions we could cover everything that the best books take hundreds of pages to explain.

But we do need to go over some basics of lyric writing - even though we freely admit it won't be as well as the best books do it, and is certainly not a master class. We need to delve into lyric writing because we need to see where the 'Christian' part is. We don't just want great lyrics, we want great Christian lyrics.

Can you imaging making bread by sprinkling on the yeast after it comes out the oven? We can say it's bread with yeast... but it's not really what we had in mind at all. Our lives don't become Christian by sprinkling a little church on them. And our song doesn't become 'Christian' by sprinkling something on it either. We make it Christian by baking it right into the song from the beginning.

So while we can - and we should - learn as much as we can about general lyric-writing, in our session today we will focus on the 'Christian' aspects of writing lyrics.

Now is a good time to get out the notebook you started in our first session - we'll get several opportunities to get right into hands-on songwriting today.

If you are just joining us for this session, take a few minutes to answer the key 'foundation' questions from session one. Having those down in black and white will be a big help to you in this session.

Let's get rolling! Click here for the next part...

So which does come first:
Music or lyrics?

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