How to Write a Worship Song (In 5 Minutes or Less) Commentary

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This hit Youtube Superbowl Sunday and has already made the rounds in every outlet of social media I use. I couldn’t pass up giving my two-cents worth. I mean, this is a blog after all.

There have been all sorts of reactions to this video, but one constant is that it rings true. It’s dead on. In fact, the song they play at the end isn’t just a great example of points they are talking about, it’s a great example of a lot of worship songs out there. Truth be told, I actually like it.

Because it does ring true, it’s easy to look at this video and say “this is way modern worship music is so bad.” The makers of this video go point by point, laying out the formula for a modern praise and worship song, and every single point hits home. For some of us, this may be the first time we have heard the music we have been playing, listening too, and worshiping with be formalized. Sure, we have felt that there may be formulas at work, but it’s another thing to have them be so well articulated as well as made so hilarious.

But I would like to take another look at it. What if this video isn’t explaining why worship music is “boring,” “fluffy” or “bad”? What if these are the reasons modern contempary worship music works? To explore this question, lets dissect this video point by point.

1. Chord Progression (0.05-0.51).

“All you need are four chords.” Ironically, other genres of music claim they only need three chords and the truth, so the way I see it, we have a huge advantage with that extra chord.

I have had the privilege of playing with musicians from all sorts of different skill levels. Some have either been good enough to be professional musicians or professional musicians while others are beginners to intermediate at best.

There are different skill levels in churches everywhere. Writers know this. So do worship leaders. They know that some Sundays they will have their A-Team. Other Sundays…maybe not. Having simple progressions allows the worship leader to focus more on leading the congregation in worship than trying to get the band through a song.

I have had to play guitar, both acoustic and electric, for songs with complicated chord changes. I’m a decent guitarist and I still don’t like it. You know those songs where there is a chord change every syllable? They can be a pain to play. Or the songs where the chord changes don’t seem to make any musical sense? Playing bar chords for a whole song gets old fast. So I’ll take the 1, 5, 6m, 4 progression any day of the week, especially Sunday morning.

Complicated songs can have a negative effect on the band and consequently, have a negative effect on the worship experience. If a song is hard to play the band won’t be confident. If a band isn’t confident, they won’t play well and probably will have a harder worshiping. If the band isn’t playing well and able to worship, the congregation will probably have a hard time worshiping too.

2. Praise Worthy Lyrics (0.52-1.11)

This section isn’t so much about lyrics that are worthy of being in a praise song as much as it’s about having choruses that a congregation can latch on too. This is actually really important. The point of corporate worship is to worship with a group of people. If the worship leader is the only one singing…well that just feels awkward (I’m speaking from experience on that one). You want as many people to be able to join in as possible.

3. Song Lyrics Need To Rhyme (1.12-1.53)

It’s a lot easier to rhyme sing and king than it is to rhyme propitiation with…anything. Oh well.

4. Something Needs To Be In Flames (1.54-2.02)

This was my favorite part of the whole video. It’s just not a worship song until there is combustion.

This does bring up a bigger issue. There are a some metaphors we have used so many times in worship songs that we have forgotten what they actually mean. We may even wonder if the song writer remembered what that metaphor means.

Other times metaphors just need to be explained.

I’ve been listening to the Jesue Culture’s team up with Martin Smith; “Live from New York.” In it, they revisit several old Delirious songs, one of them is “Dance In The River.” Before they start the song, Martin Smith explains the metaphor. He quickly and clearly explains where in the bible it’s from and what it means. It gave the song so much more significances. No longer was I listening to as song about a water fight; there was deep and meaningful biblical imagery behind the song.

In times when the metaphor needs to be explained, usually the responsibility doesn’t fall on the writer, rather falls on the worship leader.

My personal feeling is that there does need to be a quiet lyrical revolution of sorts in praise and worship music. I don’t think accessibility should be compromised, but I refuse to believe that deep meaning and accessible lyrics are mutually exclusive. Luckily for us, Phil Wickham is recording a new album.

5. Archaic Flare (2.03-2.10)

There is a purpose behind “Archaic Flare.” Just like we have forgotten the meaning of some metaphors, we also can forget the meaning of some hymns or at least some lines in hymns.

The purpose behind Archaic Flare is two-fold. First it’s meant to take a line we have heard since we were kids and get us to think about it in a new way. The hymn isn’t going away anytime soon, so Archaic Flare is there to help is think about an old hymn in new ways.

The second part is more subtle and often not even the intent of the writer. It remind us of the generations of Christians and worshipers who have gone before us. It’s easy for us to forget what three years ago, let alone thirty years ago or even three hundred years ago. Bringing in lyrics from old hymns subtly reminds us of the generations of saints and martyrs who have gone before us. For a minute, Archaic Flare jolts us out of our 21st century-centric state of mind.

6. THE RIFF (2.15-2.33)

The secret to playing guitar well is realizing that sometimes all the song needs you to do is move your pinky.

7. The Whoas (2.35-2.39)

This is just funny. I think one of the first songs to do this well was Hillsong United’s “What The World Will Never Take.” Ever since then, it’s been done in Jared Anderson’s “Never Be Shaken”, Jeremy Riddle’s “In Your Light” and probably every Hillsong song faster than 119 beats per minute. It’s a phase. Enjoy it while it last.

Mad Scientist and His Formula

Just because something can be formalized doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it. Take any genre of music and you can come of with the formula for it. I can’t wait to see the “How to Write a Country Song (In 5 Minutes or Less)” video. The real question is what are the elements of the formula and why do they exist? This formula wasn’t just cooked up in the head of a mad scientist named Reuben Morgan. It evolved through a lot of people trying a lot things and taking note of what worked for their context. Will this formula stay the same? Absolutely not. 15 years ago, no one was using this formula and my guess is 15 years from now no one will be using then either.

Keep sharp,

-Jed

P.S. You may not have noticed this but this video leaves out one of the most important things about worship music and that is there must be a v-neck (on a guy of course) in the room whenever the song is written and performed. Otherwise, it’s just not a real modern worship song.

3 Responses to "How to Write a Worship Song (In 5 Minutes or Less) Commentary"
  1. rhoy says:

    the funny thing is that only musicians think or care that worship music is “boring”. we think that we have to play a complex musical composition with modulation, non-standard meter and an all-out show of theoretical prowess. and I would honestly love that, but then, is it really that important than just keeping it simple on Sunday and let the people focus on a simple phrase like: “Thank you, Jesus” :)

  2. Garrett Vandenberg says:

    I’m pretty sure Jordan was wearing a V-neck, wasn’t he?

    Thanks for the review! I actually agree with much of what you said. Keeping the music itself more simplistic helps make practice easier for the many worship bands across the country that may not be the best at learning new songs in the short hour of practice time they get before service every week. I don’t think that should excuse writers from being overly cliche, or recycling the same old chord progressions over and over again. They can be easy, but recycling is just lazy, and I think God calls his people to more than that in their creativity. The purpose of this video wasn’t so much to condemn bands like Jesus Culture, Hillsong, The Ember Days, etc as much as it is to encourage writers and musicians to use the creativity God’s given them to create music that’s actually creative, and to actually know what they’re talking about when they use the dozen or so cliches that are recycled in nearly every modern worship song. Just because it’s a “worship song” doesn’t mean it has to be locked down to the exact same style and format as so many of the others.

    The truth is, I love Jesus Culture, Bethel, and The Ember Days, because regardless of how cliche the lyrics often are, or the formats the songs may follow, (and I know this formula doesn’t hold true for all of these’s bands’ songs) they’re still great because they have a passion for God in their worship, and I think that’s awesome. I just respect writers like Martin Smith and Gungor a bit more, because they really know the theology behind their stuff well, and are very creative when it comes to musical style and format. Passion in music is a good thing, but passion married with sound theology and interesting writing that actually makes the listener and common worshiper think is even better.

    Also, yay for new Phil Wickham! Love that guy.

  3. Jed says:

    @rhoy- It’s so interesting hearing how musicians talk about worship music and non-musicians talk about worship music. The priorities of the two groups are totally different. I have to ask myself a lot: is what I’m concerned about as a musician really going to matter to the people who are showing up to church who just want to worship God? (PS Great to run into you again on the interwebs.)

    @Garrett Vandenberg- Couldn’t have said it better myself. Part of me wonders if a lot of us are taking this video too seriously. Like you said, the purpose of this video isn’t to condemn worship bands, it’s to encourage creativity. I think it’s also suppose to just make people laugh. There’s nothing wrong with that. On another note, my last name is Smith. I’m pretty sure your last name could beat up my last name 😉

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