What's In a Song?

August 2018 Worship Blog.jpg

The question seems fairly innocuous. Maybe even a little cut and dry. But if you take the time to think about it, you'll find it's a pretty important one as far as churches and worship leaders are concerned. If you're a parent, there are channels on the radio dial that you skip over when your children are in the car, right? And, if we're being honest, you probably skip some of those channels even when you're children aren't in the car. And we do it for a few reasons. It could be the overall style of the music is really aggressive, or the lyrical content is... bad.

If you're a parent, then you're probably discerning in the content that your children interact with on a daily basis. Even if you're not a parent, you probably still engage in some level of discernment when it comes to the content you let into your life. This is a wise practice for all Christians to incorporate into their daily lives. It's also something we practice as worship leaders when it comes to the music we use at church.

The truth is, not all Christian music is meant for a congregation. It's just not. Some of the biggest considerations I utilize in selecting music for the church passes through a few filters before it makes it way onto a Sunday setlist.

What is the congregational sing-ability of the song?

This can break down into some more granular questions, but essentially the song has to be one the congregation can sing together. Think about R.E.M.'s song It's The End Of The World. Everyone who's familiar with it is probably good with singing along right up until it gets to "It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine," but the verse comes in and it's full-open fire hydrant of lyrics and everything falls apart. The same is true of the song One Week by a band whose name we won't mention here in a church blog post. Rapid fire lyrics and multiple people trying to sing in unison is beyond tricky.

Furthermore, some music even has an odd lyrical meter to it. Most languages, such as English, have a natural rhythm to them which spills over into singing as well. The pacing and phrasing of lyrics, the way we run words together or draw our syllables, all of that matters to the sing-ability of a song. When the lyrics stress too many syllables, or contain oddly placed syllables... it gets messy. This is true of both modern music and even some hymns. If you grew up in a church that made use of hymnals, chances are there were a few with some odd meters and/or complex lyrical content. It was like doing advanced calculus for most people, only in that instance you were singing the calculus. Everyone is joylessly mumbling along and that's not edifying.

So, we have to be considerate of the sing-ability of a song.  

Can we –musically– pull it off as a band? If, not can we retool it to work with our band?

Our band is composed of a few dozen people now, all of whom come from various backgrounds in music with various levels of skill. Not everyone serving on the worship team grew up playing in bands or playing the styles of music we currently use. It means we have musicians who've really stepped out and stretched themselves musically and that's a really awesome thing to witness! That being said, we still have to be able to pull the song off as a band.

Some songs feature instruments none of us play, or they utilize production tools that we don't have at our disposal. In those cases, we have to determine if we can retool something to make it work within our context. Bluegrass, for example, is a genre of music that almost demands certain time signatures and certain instruments. When you're missing those elements, it's difficult to translate those into your context, because it loses a lot of what makes the song work. Some songs are retooled easily, others not so much.

Besides, we're not getting up on stage on a Sunday morning any time soon and ripping out some German speed metal. It just doesn't work like that.

What is the theological/doctrinal content of the song?

This is probably the single most important element of a song that we have to consider. We have a high view of theology and doctrine at Gateway, and so one of the practices we've fostered in our worship leaders is a discerning approach toward song lyrics.

For years I led songs with some lyrical content that I now sort of shutter at. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but as I expanded my theological studies there were some lyrics in popular church songs that started to pop out at me. They just seemed off and at odds with the truths of Scripture. So, as I sat and teased out their implications more and more, I came to the realization that the songs I was choosing contained words about God that weren't true of His character and nature. For those of you just joining Christianity and happen to be reading this, that is bad. It's not healthy for the believer, and it's not honoring to God.

Now, some lyrics can be changed if they're questionable, and that happens. There have been a few popular Christian songs over the last couple years that contain a phrase or a word that is troubling. Some really fantastic theologians have addressed this from the perspective of a poet. Poets and poetry have historically given us a language to describe what we were previously unable to in our own words. They've helped interpret the complexities of the human experience. Sometimes their words require deeper consideration in order to truly grasp what is being communicated. We don't always have the time or the appreciation for that process.

The connotation of words can change somewhat over time, as well. Like saying "that's bad!" when describing something that's actually really cool or good. The historical meanings of words is reversed, this especially true of slang or colloquialisms. "That's bad" is an easy one, but some other phrases simply aren't, and if the hearer doesn't take the time to tease out the writer's meaning, in a church setting, that can lead to some confusion among believers. Sometimes a troubling lyric can be rewritten to avoid confusion and thus the song is salvaged. In some cases, the lyrical content is just too troubling, and we simply can't use it in a meaningful way.

There may be other elements we consider in selecting a song, but this is a pretty basic template to illustrate how we choose them. We care about the words we're putting on your lips and in your minds. They go with us outside of these walls and into our everyday lives. They serve as elements of our personal worship as much as our public or corporate worship. So, we need to be discerning of the songs we incorporate during our worship services.