Sometimes people will ask me, “how do you write songs?” Actually my approach to songwriting is pretty simple. I could sum it up in this single principle: Good songwriting combines lyrics and music to communicate a feeling or moment to your listener.
Imagine those emotions you feel most deeply. It could be joy, sadness, frustration, anything really. Or imagine a significant moment–picture what you felt, your surroundings, etc. Your job as a songwriter is to capture that emotion or moment in its purest, most concentrated form so that when your listener hears your song, they can understand it as well as you can.
As a musician, you have two tools to convey emotion and feeling: lyrical content and music. In your content, write as beautifully and as precisely as possible. One gripe I have with modern worship music is that it presents truth in such a cliched generic way. It’s filled with stock phrases that talk about the Gospel in the exact same way that every other song does. In my mind, this hinders worship. If you write carelessly and thoughtlessly about the truth, then it’s only a matter of time before we begin to sing carelessly and thoughtlessly about the truth. The Gospel brings about deep emotions of thankfulness and joy. Labor to evoke those responses in your audience by writing well about the beauty of Christ, and by painting a picture of what a heart looks like when it genuinely responds to the Gospel. If you’re looking for examples, look to the hymns. The hymn writers did not just communicate truth, they did so poetically and imaginatively. To quote some of my favorites–from Come Thou Fount: “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love!” or from Be Thou my Vision: “Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, still be my vision oh ruler of all!” Those are some darn well-written lines.
Your second tool is music. The music should not be an afterthought, but rather should supplement your lyrics. Most often, your music will support your lyrics. To name a secular example, think of the ultra popular song, “Say Something“. You’re probably sick of it by now, but let me ask you: how did such a simple and clean song become so popular among the normal crop of crass party/dance songs? Because its lyrics and music do such a good job capturing emotion.
Notice how the quiet slow music matches the exhausted speaker as he pleads with his love one last time . Notice how the music continually swells as the speaker builds up to one final plea, climaxing at 3:19. Notice how it quiets again as he realizes that its time to give up. The music plays a crucial part in telling the story of the song and communicating the speaker’s emotion. For some other interesting examples off the top of my head: check out the Adele songs “Someone like you” and “Rolling in the deep”. Notice how the music matches the lyrics.
You can also use music to contradict or complicate the message of your lyrics. For example, taking hopeful lyrics and putting them with minor-sounding chords. For a pretty clear example of this, check out “Joy” by Page CXVI, or the band Ascend the Hill. . Or think about all the youtube covers which change a fast poppy song to a slow ballad or vice versa. How might music change the message of the song? Singing happy lyrics to a minor melody might, for instance, communicate the speaker’s desire to believe his lyrics, but the struggle of his heart to truly do so.
Well, there you have it. Use your lyrics and music to encapsulate deep feeling. The difficult (and fun) part, of course, is thinking hard about your lyrics and your music, and using them to complement each other in creative and compelling ways.
My favorite way to capture emotion is through what I’ve called earlier the tension of faith. Basically, the emotion I want to capture is the feeling of believers as we struggle between earthly difficulties and our hope in Christ. Martyn Lloyd Jones writes that the glory of the Christian life is not “the absence of feeling” but that as Christians we “rise above them though you feel them”. I’ve found the most profound music which resonates most deeply with me, is the music which acknowledges earthly struggle, but upholds Gospel hope if we will but have faith.
Let me walk you through this thought process in “Eternal Weight of Glory”, a song based on Paul’s words 2 Corinthians. Here are the lyrics of the verse and chorus:
We do not lose heart, and we are of good courage
And though we cannot see, we will look to what is certain :
This momentary pain is preparing for the day when we shall feel the weight of
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! (What shall we say when we see)
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah! (eternal weight of glory?)
“O Glorious King, How great you are!
Here in the body, away from the Lord
We make it our aim to please and adore
Away from the body, at home with the Lord
We make it our aim, to please and adore him
O Glorious King how great you are!
The tension I wanted to capture here is between momentary pain and the eternal weight of glory. The verse captures the reality that Paul is “here in the body, and away from the Lord”. It captures all of our realities as we endure through earthly life as we hope towards heaven. Yet, even though we believe in God’s promise, we still experience real and distressing pain. Notice, as the song reaches the line, “this momentary pain…” the volume and the dissonance of the music builds, matching the reality of earthly hardships.
Once you hit the word “glory” however we move from earthly longing to heavenly fulfillment. We glimpse the reality of how it feels to be “away from the body, at home with the Lord”. You’re at the height of the crushing dissonance of suffering, and suddenly it’s over. There is a moment of rest and reprieve. You’re standing in heaven. Everything is suddenly quiet except for the chorus of angels and faithful saints singing “glory, glory, hallelujah” And then you see the King. And slowly you begin to realize the weight of the Glorious King. As real as the weight of suffering was, it does not compare. All you can do is cry our with all of of creation, “Oh Glorious King how great you are!”
Earthly suffering and heavenly hope are held in tension throughout the song. Near the end, they even come together as they’re sung on top of each other, until it fades only to the chorus. It’s expressed in the bridge as we sing about how wherever we are we will praise the glorious King. I think the tension is captured most succinctly in the phrase: what shall we say when we see eternal weight of glory? Oh Glorious King, how great you are! It is both the cry of faith for the struggling believer, looking forward to the day of salvation. It is the joyful shout of the believer in heaven as he beholds the King.
Now, let me shift gears a bit. The interesting thing about this song is that it’s lifted basically verbatum from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, 5:6-9. Even more interestingly, almost all of the songs dearest to my heart, which have also resonated most deeply with other people, have come directly from the Scriptures. I think this tells us something wonderful about God’s Word. Namely, there is tension in God’s word. There is deep profound emotion in God’s Word. When we come to the Bible with all of our longings and emotions, we don’t find simplistic textbook answers. We find a God of comfort who understands us and is able to meet us in our deepest needs.
Let me ask another question: why does God choose to deliver for instance, the book of 2 Corinthians, through a human author like the Apostle Paul? Why didn’t he just write an instruction manual telling us to hold on because heaven is better than earth?
Do you remember the role of music in songwriting? It is not arbitrary, rather it compliments the lyrical content. I think God does something similar with our lives. On the one hand, there are the words of Scripture, but God gives them to us through a real man, in a real situation, writing to real people. He has endured and is presently enduring real suffering. And so, he says those words with credibility and also with real heartfelt emotion. He speaks from within the tension of knowing the worth of heaven, while also feeling the heavy burdens of life. Paul’s life is the music which compliments the message (And our lives are the music which compliment our message too!). God, in his infinite wisdom, knew that speaking through a real historical Paul would minister more deeply to our souls than a tidy instruction manual.
All to say that, as we study God’s Word for ourselves and communicate it to others, I think it’s helpful at times to think like a songwriter. Yes, first and foremost focus on getting the truth of the text so that we faithfully communicate what God’s Word says. But also, look for the emotion, the spirit of the text. What does it mean for Paul to be able to say what he says in 2 Corinthians? How about in 2 Timothy? Or how would a poor sick man feel when he stood listening to Jesus preach the Beatitudes in the sermon on the mount? Why does Jesus get so angry at certain points of the Gospel? What does it mean when John tells us that Jesus wept? You could go on and on. But I think if we’re careful to pay attention the spirit of the text, we’ll find that the Bible speaks profoundly with weight and emotion to both our own souls and to the souls of our listeners.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:16-17 ESV)
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