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Songwriting Workshop 3: Walk A Mile In My Ears

In addition to our scriptural measures of a 'successful' song, we usually hope that many people will listen to it and enjoy it.

To enable people to appreciate our song, we need to understand what our audience's expectations are. What conventions are they used to? Then we must meet most of our audience's expectations most of the time.

It is very important that we only say 'most': If we always slavishly follow conventions and patterns, our music will not be unique, and could easily be boring.

On the other hand, we truly do need to follow conventions 'most' of the time. We say 'most, and not just 'some' of the time. If we don't, our listeners will at least be distracted and confused. At worst, they will be completely lost and even musically offended to the point of just switching our song off.

We must follow enough of the expected conventions so our audience can successfully follow along with us on our musical journey - but we want to break just enough of the conventions that our audience will find the music interesting.

Do I Have To Play What You Like?

Sometimes songwriters or composers are disappointed that audiences just don't understand or appreciate their wonderful work.

That's not always bad. The song may be a gift from God specifically for you. If that happens to you, it is a wonderful use of music even if God is the only one to listen to it, even if another soul never even hears it, never mind likes it. We can have complete confidence that there is no atonal or mathematically complex music that God lacks the capability to fully understand and appreciate. But that is personal music, given by him to you, just for you and God to enjoy together.

Here we are talking about music that involves at least three people: You, God, and your listener.

If we are called by God to deliver a message, we need to use our talents to reach the people God has called us to reach. To paraphrase Paul, to those that like far eastern music, we need to be as though we were born in India, to those that are used to the western scale, we need to be as though we were born in Indianapolis. Now realistically, we may simply lack the musical expertise to be quite that flexible.

But within the capabilities we do have, we need to adapt to our audience, not the other way around. If the audience we are called to reach doesn't understand or doesn't like our music, we only need to grab a mirror to see what the problem is. Note that with so many diverse audiences, there may be lots of people that cannot relate to our music. That's just another reason for understanding who our target audience is - we need to do whatever is necessary to make sure they at least can relate to it, and get the message we are supposed to deliver to them.

It's easy to see the big differences in musical scales between distant cultures, and we find it easy to imagine accommodating those. However, we'll see in a moment that there are many differences that hit closer to home that can be much more challenging for us.

Woe Is Me

What rights do we have to expect that the music we like most like will be appreciated by anyone else? Well, in the case of Christian music, the answer is pretty straightforward: None.

And it really doesn't matter if we are songwriting, playing in a church music group, or serving as an organist. It is about leading people in the worship of God, or bringing people to a better knowledge and love of God. It is about God and them - not about us.

There are sometimes sad faces when we don't get our own way. We want to use our gifts in particular ways, and when we can't, we want to take all our toys back and march straight home.

But serving others does not force any of us into a life of musical misery.

God knows the exact music that lifts each individual soul - your soul , my soul, his soul, or her soul - and every single one will be different. Some of our talent is for praising God on our own, and some is for our own enjoyment (which also glorifies God). But beyond those two good uses, talent is also to be used in the service of our most worthy God.

If we are willing, we can always take joy in using our musical talents to serve our Lord. So what if it is not fun? Well, it is unlikely to always be fun, but it can and should always be joyful. There are two things that can stop us experiencing the joy God intends as we serve him through our music ministry:

  • First, we might be like the man with the one talent that went and buried it. Afraid of a master we don't trust enough, we could be tempted to just bury our talent too. The solution is to get to know our compassionate, fair and merciful God better, and to trust him more. He knows what is best for us better than we do ourselves - so if we are following him, we can take joy in serving him through whatever he calls us to do.
  • Second, we might fall into the trap of thinking we are too good for what God needs. If we have a brain the size of a planet, is it a waste of time to hold the door open for someone? If we sold ten million downloads, would that make us too good to sing a lullaby to baby, or a carol at the old folks' home? If we are brutally honest, the 'p' word affects us more than we like to admit. If we are actively serving God, but we are feeling that our talents are somehow being 'wasted', we need to ask if it is our pride making us feel that way.

Satan's surveys show that fear and pride are a big human weakness, and he can trip us up with one of those eleven times out of ten. There's nothing he'd like better than for us to be so full of fear of pride that we fail to spread God's saving word.

The Way Forward

So "they" may not like hymns/choruses/choirs/soloists/CCM/Hillsong/drummers/country/organs/guitars/fill-in-the-blank-here. And that may truly be their loss.

But having made any gentle efforts we prayerfully consider appropriate to expand their horizons, we need to get stuck in with what we can do. We need to do whatever is in our capability to help them learn about God and worship him, wherever they may be at musically.

God has a place and a way for me and for you to serve him through my talent or your talent. That place and that way will not only be the greatest blessing to those around us, and bring the greatest glory to his name, but it will ultimately be the most fulfilling and satisfying use of our talent, even if it doesn't feel that way at first.

We need to seek the kingdom of God first in our music, just as in every other area of our lives. We can completely trust him to work things out for our truest good. We just need to be obedient and use what he's given us, not limited by fear, and not limited by pride.

And think about this: Secular musicians rarely get to do exactly what they want either, because if they don't meet the market need with their music, they don't eat (or at least they don't eat from their music). So any music not just for ourselves or God has to serve somebody. Not to be too crass, it's pretty much going to be money or ministry. Most of us have to bend - we only get to choose which way.

Are there other 'rules' that apply to Christian music? Well, serving God through our music may be the big one, but let's look at a couple of other things we need to keep in mind.

Next part: Conscience rules

Do I have to play what you like, or do you have to listen to what I like?

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