On the choosing of songs

Behold He comes, riding on the clouds? Or, actually, a picture taken on a walk around the harbour in Crete....

Behold He comes, riding on the clouds? Or, actually, a picture taken on a walk around the harbour in Crete….

I have not had any time for blogging this week.  I have been working – yes, working – in Crete.  So, today, I think I will write a rant.  Rants are much easier to write than normal posts…..

One of the difficult parts of being a music leader in church is the choosing of new songs. People who know me will tell you that I am a bit of a “Hitler” when it comes to this, and in fact I think I am getting worse as I get older.  It is not an uncommon occurrence for someone to enthusiastically recommend a new song to me, and for me to say, simply, NO! I will usually give reasons.  Those reasons might not always be what that person wants to hear.

So, for future reference, and to reduce the need for future disappointment, here are some of the things that I tend to look at whenever I’m looking at a new song.

  1. Do I like it? Honestly, that is the first thing…. after that, it gets a bit more involved…..
  2. Do the words make sense?  You would think that Christian songwriters might spend a bit more time attending to this detail.   After all, the songs we sing are supposed to mean something, right?  I am sad to report that, unfortunately, this detail is sadly overlooked in the rush to get to the catchy chorus line.   Two questions are worth asking when you look at some song lyrics: What is this song about? and Who are we singing to?  So very often the song lyrics seem to be a random collection of nice sounding, emotive, phrases, jumping from topic to topic, idea to idea, but (in the words of MacBeth) signifying nothing.  The song doesn’t seem to be about anything.  Other times, the first verse is written as if being spoken to other members of the church, the chorus written as if addressed to God, the second verse as if addressed to Jesus.  Sometimes it is worse, and the addressee of the song switches from line to line.  Who are we singing to?  Sometimes I don’t know where to look when I sing.
  3. Correct theology is, I guess, sometimes a matter of opinion. But, I do like songs to get their theology right. For example, I tend not to go for songs which suggest we are all going to leave Earth behind and head off to Heaven.  People remember song lyrics long after they forget the sermon, which means that they learn much of their theology from songs. So, it is worth getting it right!
    As an aside, just because a song quotes from the Bible, it doesn’t mean the theology of the song is right. Words, and phrases, get their meaning from their context – a Bible verse quoted out of context can change its meaning entirely. The song “These are the days of Elijah” contains an immense number of Bible references, but (so far as I can tell) it is completely meaningless.  What is that song about?
  4. Do I need surgery in order to be able to sing it? I do like a good tune. I don’t like it when songs start really low, and then suddenly jump really high. I can do my best to try to fit these songs into a range where the average human being can sing, but if the range of notes is too wide, then there’s nothing that can be done. Technically, I try not to let songs creep above top D (maybe Eb at a push), and not below the A underneath middle C. And, even within that range, if a song has too many high notes in a row, or too many low notes in a row, then it is going to be uncomfortable to sing. Some songs are written to be sung in a stadium, or at a large Christian conference, but don’t work so well if you bring them back into a smallish church.
  5. Is the language accessible?  Best not to use Greek, Latin, or Hebrew words when no-one knows what they mean.  If I have to translate a song for the congregation before we sing, it sort of disrupts the flow a bit.  So, I’d suggest no Ruachs, no Yahwehs, no Kyrie Eleisons – we do not normally speak like that!  A more delicate balance is to be struck with Olde Englishe words… sometimes it feels nice to use more traditional-sounding language, and many of the old hymns contain wonderful truths and theology about which we don’t normally sing (other old hymns contain heresy, but that is another matter).  On the other hand, I do not know what ineffably sublime means. And, sometimes a line in a hymn just doesn’t make sense, especially if you change some other words in the verse. My anchor holds within the veil? What veil, and why do we need to repeat the line at maximum volume? [Reference: Hillsong’s “Cornerstone].
  6. It’s all about me. Well, actually, it isn’t all about me, it is all about God, and then (next) about the church, and the world, but you wouldn’t guess that from a lot of the songs we have in the church.
  7. Mushy, lovey-dovey, “Jesus is my girlfriend” songs. Do I need to write any more here? The church is full of women of both sexes, and if we want that to change, we need to recognise that some people are not comfortable singing “your name is like honey on my lips.”  It is possible to write emotional songs expressing love for God without it descending into mushiness. David managed it in the Psalms, and he was a proper bloke. The comfort line between solidity and mush is difficult to define; it actually helps if the song addresses the mind as well as the heart. But we know when the mush-line has been crossed, so we‘ll just tell you when that is, OK?
  8. Do I already have lots of songs on this topic already? It is notable that, during our recent Lent course looking at the cross, there was no shortage of suitable songs to pick.  It was easy to fill seven weeks of services with songs about the cross, without getting bored of those songs. If, next year, we do a Lent course on the resurrection, then we are in big trouble. I can only think of about 5 songs on the resurrection in our repertoire, and I wrote 3 of them….
    …. the more general point is that songwriters seem to come back to the same topics over and over again. They copy ideas and themes from other songs.  The Christian story is far richer than our song repertoire.
  9. Action songs. Are fun once.  Maybe twice. Enough said.

You might wonder whether we sing any songs in our church. We do.  And, it is a real joy to find a well-written song, where the author has clearly spent a long time getting the lyrics, and the tune, right. Such songs are truly vehicles for worship.

Finally, a couple of good things to read on this topic. I am very fond of the book “And Now Let’s Move into a Time of Nonsense” by Nick Page, which really helps you think about the words you sing. And, this post on “Annoying Things in Worship Songs” helps put rants like this in some sort of perspective.

Leave a comment


  1. Fee Pullan

     /  May 6, 2014

    Wonderfully written Daniel! I will think twice before I sulk again 😉 p.s. love the caption on your picture xxx


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