What makes a good worship song?

What makes a good worship song?

Finding songs for worship is easy. There’s no shortage of options in every style and genre and there are new ones constantly coming onto the scene. Finding good songs, however, is a challenge. There are many aspects to look at when it comes to selecting the right songs and through a series of posts, we’ll look at some of the things that make a good worship song.

1. The Technical Aspects of the Song

These are the easiest to look at because they’re the most objective. Here’s some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the range of the melody in a congregation friendly range? Congregations can comfortably sing within a range of B flat below middle C to the D a tenth above that. You can possibly push it a step or two beyond those boundaries briefly, but some will find it difficult or impossible to reach.
  • Where does the bulk of the melody fall within that range? The technical term for this is the tessitura. If the song fits neatly within the range, but 90% of the melody is at either end of the spectrum, the congregation is going to have problems. Everyone will leave that day hoarse and unable to speak from fatigue.
  • How complicated is the rhythm? In most worship songs, the balance between rhythm, melody and harmony work like a pie chart. The more complex or larger one piece is, the easier or smaller the others are. Complex rhythms and lots of syncopation can be a stumbling block, but singing everything with a straight quarter note beat is monotonous. Look for the balance between the two extremes that fits your demographic. The younger your demographic, the more you can push the boundary to the complex side because they grew up with more complicated music and are quicker at picking it up.
  • What’s the form of the song? While not as critical as the other aspects, it bears noting that the simpler the form of the song (the verse-chorus-bridge structure) the easier it will be for people to remember it. It’s important to keep in mind since most churches using modern worship songs don’t use hymnals or printed copies of the songs.

2. The Music

Here’s where it begins to get subjective. Personal preferences are important, as I believe that God can use them to help guide us to the right songs, but we can’t rely on them alone. You have to look at the whole picture, because it’s easy for us to get in the way. Personal preferences are important, as I believe that God can use them to help guide us to the right songs, but we can’t rely on them alone. You have to look at the whole picture, because it’s easy for us to get in the way.

  • Is the melody interesting? Songs that repeat the same note or two for large portions of the song will quickly bore the congregation. It doesn’t matter if the lyrics are deep and meaningful – if the music is lame, they won’t be able to get past it to the lyrics.
  • Is it singable? On the flip-side of the above question, a song can be too complicated for Joe Churchgoer to pick up quickly. Most churches using modern worship music (read: not hymns) don’t use hymnals or printed versions of the songs with music. I’m not interested in debating the merits of having printed music or using a screen – that’s not the focus of this post. However, even if you are using printed copies of the song, remember that people are less musically literate than they used to be. Just because they can hold it in their hand doesn’t mean they know what to do with it!
  • Is it memorable? Another way to say it might be, is it different from your other songs or does it sound like everything else? One thing to keep in mind at all times: for every one time Joe Churchgoer hears a song, you (the one picking or performing the song) probably hear it five to ten times. It’s the nature of the situation. And just because he might hear it four or five times, it doesn’t mean he was actually listening and learning the song. (I’m talking here about hearing it in the car or on the radio – hopefully if he’s hearing it at church he’s listening!)

3. The Lyrics

Lyrics are a critical component of a successful worship song. A church’s theology comes as much from its music as its sermons. In fact, the argument could be made that music is even more powerful for two reasons: 1. because sermons get preached once and songs get sung over and over and 2. because people will often come across the songs in different times and places that help to firm the ideas from the song in their minds. There are a few questions to ask when it comes to evaluating the lyrics:

  • Is the theology solid? No song is going to be able to communicate all of God’s truth. There have been countless major works of classical music that have attempted to explore one aspect of God’s truth (Handel’s Messiah for instance, tells just the story of Jesus’ life and still clocks in at around 70 minutes for a performance time.) Each song used in worship should communicate some part of God’s truth.
  • Are the lyrics… lyrical? Sounds like an odd question, but a song with solid theology can be very bland if it’s not written artfully. The flow of the words is as important as the truth they contain.

While those are the two big questions to ask about individual songs, there are a couple other questions that you should ask when looking at your overall repertoire:

    • Who are the songs being sung to? There are two directions that songs can go: they can be sung to God or to each other. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell where a song is going (look at the pronouns that refer to God – He/Him/His are to each other, You/Your are to God) but it’s important that you have a balance between each kind.
    • Are the lyrics scriptural? They certainly shouldn’t contradict scripture (unless it’s a solo piece that you’re using to make a point and it’s not part of your regular repertoire) but not all songs need to contain direct scripture. Again, there should be a balance between those that are and are not direct scripture references.
    • What perspective is the song sung from? Does it use I/me or we/us? This is more a matter of individual church taste. Some churches feel using the individual perspective downplays the importance of collective worship while others feel it makes the words more personal. Whatever your perspective, stick with it. Don’t edit the words to one song and then not another or do it one time but not another. Be consistent. At Journey, I don’t edit the words to songs – they stay the way the author intended and the way people are likely to hear them outside of church.
    • How would a first-time guest feel singing this song? This is one of the most important questions that I ask at Journey. Christians tend to forget that not every one knows what we mean when we say certain “insider phrases” like washed in the blood, the lion and the lamb and others, so we intentionally look at the lyrics from the perspective of someone who’s new.

Choosing good songs for worship is as much an art as it is a science. Through careful study, prayer and even trial and error, you’ll discover the styles and songs that resonate with your church and foster an atmosphere of worship and participation where God is praised and his people are built-up.

Matthew Sterner is a guest blogger for Musicademy. He blogs at Beyond the Noise: Thoughts on Life and Worship.

Other posts you might like:
10 things to avoid in songwriting (Vicky Beeching)
Lyrics and storytelling (Mia Fieldes)
Writing great melodies (Bob Kilpatrick)