What makes a great worship song?

Yesterday we asked on Facebook “What makes a great worship song?” As usual our subscribers had lots of great ideas which you can read by clicking through . But below that is an interview with a worship academic who reckons he is on the road to defining the science behind a great worship song.

An interview with no less than the word’s leading expert on the contemporary congregational song

Daniel Thornton is an Australian worship leader, songwriter, composer and, intriguingly, the ‘world’s leading expert on the contemporary congregational song’. Daniel is conducting a PhD to find the ‘science’ (my word) behind the songs that churches can and want to sing. Using CCLI’s list of the top 25 songs reported by churches, he is attempting to discover what it is about these particular songs that has made them so universally popular in churches.

I was keen to find out what Daniel has found – why churches choose to sing certain songs and not others, and whether his research could influence the way ‘congregational songs’ are written in the future…

Daniel Thornton

Daniel, tell us about your PhD. Why study the ‘contemporary congregational song?’

Most people talk about praise & worship or contemporary worship music. I chose the ‘contemporary congregational song’ because I think it’s really dangerous to use the word ‘worship’ when we’re only referring to songs. I think most people know that worship is a lifestyle, but we still talk about praise & worship when we mean worship music. So in an academic context I needed a term that was not so linked to other expressions of worship. We even talk about praise & worship as meaning fast songs/slow songs, so we’ve made ‘worship’ into ‘slow songs’.

No one has done this research before and I really want to help songwriters. I’ve been a local worship pastor and I’ve had so many conversations with my team, with other pastors… you have these subjective conversations around songs going, ‘I like this song, but I don’t like that song… this song is going to work…I didn’t think the congregation engaged with that one…’ Most of those conversations are just subjective opinion. So my question is, ‘What’s the data? What can the average Christian actually sing – does anybody know?’ We say, ‘that song’s too high…that song’s too low’, these are all subjective opinions. I want to know what the average Christian can sing, and I want to know what songs resonate with them…not just the songs we make them sing – CCLI can give me that data, but it can’t actually tell me individually how people in the congregation are connecting with the songs.

Some of the most fascinating findings for me have been my online surveys. I’ve been asking people of all ages and from across the denominations to sing a song without any accompaniment. There’s a few things I wanted to find out. One of them is simply their song choice – so the song they naturally choose without any prompting. And already… it’s diverse! I expected that some of the top CCLI songs would keep appearing, but actually when people get to sing by themselves it is a vast array of songs they choose.

Contemporary songs are sometimes accused of dumbing down worship, and lacking creativity. Do you think that’s fair? Can you reveal what you’re finding through your PhD?

There’s a big tension in that space. There are lots of arguments about the lack of theological depth in contemporary songs but I don’t see those conversations really going anywhere useful. Even though many contemporary songs are actually getting a bit more theologically attentive than they were perhaps 20 years ago, my question is why do theyhave to be completely inclusive of all Christian doctrine? A song is a limited vehicle, even those that we think are theologically profound, ultimately it’s just a sliver.

In an oral culture, you want to capture all your theology in song because that’s the way that you teach and learn that theology, and that’s crucial. But actually we’re in an age where we’ve got more vehicles that we’ve ever had for that theology. Preaching is available everywhere and anywhere, versions of the Bible and commentaries are available at the touch of a button. We’re not short of theological options. I still believe song is a very powerful vehicle for theology because it actually puts it in our mouth so then that becomes the theology of our confession rather than just the theology that we read or listen to. So yes, there is something important about song, but I do wrestle with this idea that songs need to encapsulate all our comprehensive theology. Ultimately they can’t individually, but CCLI has thousands of songs in its database, so actually there’s probably an impressive theological database amongst all those songs.

But how many are churches singing on a Sunday? Perhaps three, four? And which ones are churches choosing to sing? People have asked me; ‘Why aren’t we singing more lament songs?’ ‘Why are they not in the CCLI charts?’ It’s because churches are choosing not to sing them, not because they don’t exist. So really the question is why are churches choosing to sing the songs they are, and that’s really what I’m looking at. I’m looking at the songs that are most sung, that are most popular, and asking; What are the lyrical, theological, musical components that come together to resonate with churches?

So presumably when you’ve gathered all the answers you’re going to be the ultimate songwriter…you’ll be writing the songs that churches are guaranteed to want to sing…

(Daniel laughs). That’s the danger of the research. Clearly what I’m not going to come up with is some hit Christian song formula, because of course if anyone could do that…

…It would no longer be art, it would be science…?

Yes, and part of what I’m doing is talking to the writers. I’m gauging peoples reception and engagement with the songs but I’m also getting the intent from the songwriters – what they thought when they were writing it. And sometimes the way people are engaging with a song is a long way away from what the songwriter intended for the song … or they thought the song wasn’t going to work and it took off, or they thought they’d got something quite profound and it didn’t take off. So I’m not trying to come up with a formula.

But there definitely are some key findings. If I had to reduce it down to a sentence it would be that contemporary congregational songs work when they resonate with the vinacular music of the people who are singing them – so the music of their culture. Certainly in a broad western culture that’s going to be pop music of some form or another.

They contain theological truth. There is interpretability in them – they contain metaphors and poetry that allow people to interpret. Certainly some people will argue and choose not to sing certain songs but the bottom line is they always contain some kind of fundamental theological truth. One of the powerful things about a song is that five people can listen to it and actually get something different out of it, that it can speak to them in a personal way. So great songs have lyrics that allow them to be interpretable.

As well as an element of the Holy Spirit working through them?

Yes, so ‘10,000 reasons for my heart to find’… Clearly what people invisage when they sing that lyric is going to be diverse. ‘You call me out upon the water’… They’re metaphors and this sort of poetic language and metaphor is really important in songs. And finally, directly related to that is some kind of personal applicational connection, or resonance. I think it comes out of all of those elements – with the music they connect to, with the theology they resonate with, with the pictures they invisage that relate to them individually.

Does a song have to have a spine-tingling quality, or can people engage with a song on an intellectual level through the words even if they aren’t moved by the melody?

I’m sure they can, but the bottom line is musical preferences are held very very deeply in human beings, and there is a lot of research out there that looks at this, not just in a Christian context, but generally. One particular guy, Daniel Levitin talks about this ‘schema’, this place where we resonate with music, and basically he says that’s often formed somewhere around our adolescence, our early adulthood, especially through crucial moments in our lives; our first love, those initial achievements. Basically we end up creating our own personal musical schema, so that anything that is too simple or too predictable, we don’t have any interest in, and anything that is too complex or too outside of our world, we don’t resonate with.

Of course this can change over time but clearly those preferences are where music is going to have the most impact for us personally. The great challenge in a church setting is that we’ve got the 99 year old and the nine month old; you’ve got generations who have significantly different schemas…

And that’s just one church…as the church, we are as eclectic a body as we could be.

Exactly, yet in church we all lay down these preferences, because there’s actually a bigger picture for us. We’re engaging with the body and God is more important than the song, and so I think every Sunday there are countless people laying down musical preferences to engage in worship and doing so quite happily. You can never find the perfect music that resonates with everyone because it’s an impossible task, it’s always going to be too loud for some, too soft for some, too much guitar for some, too little for others.

So you hope these findings will be of value to songwriters, worship leaders and churches. When do you hope to publish your findings and where can we go to find out what you’ve discovered?

Certainly by this time next year I’ll be planning to have the results in a digestible form, a book. It might take a bit longer. In the meantime I’ve written a lot of articles for Worship Leader Magazine on my ongoing findings which you can find online. (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5)

I’d like to ask you a little bit more about your background. You’re classically trained in a number of instruments, you’ve composed all kinds of different types of music, you’re also a worship songwriter in your own right. How has that background influenced the way you write songs and the way you approach worship music?

I think it’s interesting that so many of those whose songs are popular in the churches don’t have a particularly high degree of musical training. I think one of the dangers of classical training is that schema – where your musical preferences are. I can love everything, I can love extremes, I can find interest in anything you give me that you call music. That becomes a bit of a problem because to write a congregational song you have to have something very similar to the musical schema your congregation has. I love juicy harmony and creative instrumentation but the bottom line is that most people can’t sing to it!

Daniel is a worship leader as well as a composer, songwriter and lecturer on music.

So are you saying that when you write worship songs, and especially in the context of being a worship pastor when you have a responsibility to lead songs for a specific group of people in a church, that you’re not necessarily free to just follow your heart in that process – that you perhaps have to be a bit more scientific?

That’s a really interesting tension, and I guess where there are guys who already share the same musical preferences they may never have to think about it. They write what they love and everyone else likes it. But for someone who actually has very different musical preferences, yes, it’s not about me. Hopefully I can add some of me into that, and it’s not about trying to be something that I’m not, but I do have to think about why I’m writing these songs – it’s about helping people to engage with their faith in that profound way that worship does. So yes, I’m going to try and do that musically and lyrically in a way that’s meaningful to them and not just to me.

You teach a nationally accredited course in music at Alphacrucis College which includes lots of aspects of performing and songwriting, but it also looks at the music industry and issues related to publishing and copyright. Why is it important to include those?

I serve on the advisory council for CCLI in the Asia Pacific region and it fascinates me to see how CCLI has developed. The whole music industry has been changing in the last 20 years and nowadays, any songwriter or artist needs to have some understanding of copyright and the music industry because the vast majority of them will be self-published.

Given your research and your background, are you excited by where things are heading in worship music?

Whenever I talk to people who have been involved in worship music for a long time they often lament the time when songs were more “singable”. But I’ve found in my research that the current generation isn’t saying that – they’re happy to sing them. I think the greatest challenge facing the ‘industry’ is maintaining (the right) heart and integrity. Something I’ve loved about talking to songwriters in the UK is that there does seem to be a community that is not just looking for the next hit. I think that’s really healthy. As a musician I realise that we’re stuck in very small worlds – we use four or five chords and they’re the same four or five chords for the top 25 songs…

So how do we keep it interesting?

Well I think technology is one of the ways, so looking for those fresh sounds that we can get through the advancement of technology is useful. I think that each generation carries a message so we’re going to see culture reflected in our songs, so as culture changes our songs will change. That could be both a blessing and a curse, but I think the best is yet to come. For me this PhD is just the beginning. Five or ten years down the track we’re going to need to look at the data and compare it to where we are now and try to understand the journey that’s happening in contemporary congregational songs.

Daniel Thornton was talking to Rich Burrough of CCLI. The original article can be found on the CCLI website. Thanks to Rich and CCLI for permission to reprint.