Songwriting is a skill that isn’t easy to teach. Musicians, more often than not, tend to write instinctively, absorbing their ideas about form and structure from the music that’s around them, and relying on inspiration for the direction of their words and music. Music transcends language and time. You may not know of any sermons people preached 150 years ago, but you for sure know songs written that long ago – and you could probably sing them right now! (Joy to the World, 1719; Hark the Herald Angels Sing, 1739)
How I’ve written songs:
There isn’t one formula for writing a song. When a tune or lyric comes to mind, I will record it into my phone. Sometimes I have had music and wanted some words. Other times, I have had words and wanted music. Most often, I have written songs for a purpose, with a deadline. If there is a conference theme we are working with and I need a song to fit, I will typically get something together that works.
Back in the old days, we did something at camp called the ten-word songs. Over the years, Harvest has written numerous ten-word songs – where the camp gives us ten random words, then over the course of the week, we work on composing a song to be sung at the close of camp somehow including those random words.
In more recent years, I have begun singing a three-word song – which consists of getting three words from the audience and writing a song on the spot. Here’s a recent example of this someone recorded from the Fire-Up Conference.
Most often, songs I have written come when I am sitting down with my guitar and don’t have anything pressing going on in life.
Questions I have been asked about songwriting…
Do I need to play an instrument? You don’t have to, but it doesn’t hurt. Learning a few chords on the guitar is one of the easiest, most effective ways. Otherwise, you can create lyrics and partner with someone who plays music to help you with your tunes.
I have a song, what can I do with it? Test it. Check it out. Fine-tune it. Sing it in church. Don’t attach your feelings to it, if you can help it, and take feedback graciously. See where it goes.
How can I write more songs? Keep trying! Keep working on your skills. Learn more. Keep a journal. Write stuff down. Have fun. Practice your skill by writing poems, rhyming for fun, and keeping your skill on the front burner.
He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed. They will put their trust in the Lord. Psalm 40:3
Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. Ephesians 5:18-19
“You can improve your craft as a songwriter relatively easily if you accept that your work isn’t just the result of some mystical process over which you have no control.”
- Write from your heart
- Use simple words
- Always look out for topics
- Be original
- Learn an instrument
- Change keys (adding a capo to a guitar, will give you a new spurt of creativity for writing a new melody)
- Record your melodies so you don’t forget
- Inspiration is key—read scripture, pay attention, prayer, partner with others!
- Take a risk
- String words together and try it out.
- Know the purpose of the song—worship song, story song, teaching song, fun song.
- Think of a topic
- Let the song answer a question- What? Where?
- Set the scene to fill in the blanks (Fact: We went on a trip. Details: With the Sunday sunlight at our backs, we to the mountains, with a picnic packed)
- Focus on the chorus/hook
- Be sure melody and lyrics fit (minor slow melody with peppy happy lyrics might be strange)
- Create a system for collecting thoughts and use bits and pieces as needed.