When I think of a good hook, I usually think of something that is catchy and that will make me remember the song – like a little melody or a certain phrase that repeats. Most catchy pop tunes on the radio today focus on this kind of hook. Keep it simple. Keep it themed. Keep it catchy. I love that in a good pop song.
With classic hymns, the hook is theme-based and melody-based. However, today, many writers follow the basic structure of the modern pop song. We tend to write one type of hook, and often get stuck in the form of what we think makes a good worship song.
For instance, you might structure your song like:
If you wanted to be daring, you would throw in a pre-chorus.
So, as a songwriter writing songs for Sunday mornings, should we simply emulate the music we hear on the radio? Should we write simple, catchy tunes that everyone can sing?
NT Wright put it so beautifully when he said, “One of the things music has always done in the church is both to reflect the existing culture that’s all around [and help us to] sometimes challenge it.”
I love catchy songs. I love hearing the melody or message playing over and over in my head. I also think it’s great to listen to the music of our culture, be inspired by it, and join in using it to speak to people.
But music within the church is not only about reflecting culture. It is about challenging it.
How do we do this?
Ira Glass, speaking of creative work, said, “For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. It’s gonna take a while. Its normal to take awhile. You just gotta fight your way through it.”
When writing a song, I tend not to think, “what makes a great hook?” and build on the hook. I tend to think of what this song is trying to say. If a short hooky chorus can say it, great. Or it may be more of a narrative and take on a hymn form. As a writer I am telling a story. Stories can be told in many different ways. I get weary of formulating my story the same way over and over.
Knowing this – that I will not formulate the way to write a hook or catchy worship song – I do follow guidelines when writing congregational worship songs for my church.
1. Who is my audience?
If I am writing a song for the main Sunday morning congregation, I am not likely to write something that is totally, radically opposed to who they are. But when one is writing simply as an expression of one’s own art, it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want.
2. Can the congregation sing it?
I always tease worship leaders (myself included), for writing songs that have melodies that can only be sung by the worship leader. Once again, it’s not a problem if it is your art, or if you want to just have it sung over them (that can be a great worship experience). But as worship leaders, our job is first to get people to sing and to engage in lifting up their voices.
3. Does it match your theology?
Do the songs you write speak what you believe? Are you writing something that is actually saying something that you agree with? Are you simply writing teenage love songs (which are needed), or are you writing songs that are thematically speaking to the issues of your church?
When I first started writing, I tended to address God as a young lover – not unusual when you think of what our pop radio is like. It is easier to write worship teenage love songs. Romance is fun, and writing about falling in love is easy.
NT Wright says, “The point of falling in love is like striking a match. It is very exciting. A match that is used to light a candle with it. A candle is not as exciting, but lasts a whole lot longer. ”
As a songwriter for your congregation, are you simply trying to write a song that will be catchy? Or are you writing songs that can last much longer?
Are you writing songs that have deeper meaning than how you feel about God, or are you simply writing songs that are about you?
4. Does it inspire with beauty?
Musically, this is where you should be breaking rules (like how a song should be formed). Are you challenging the culture? Are you challenging your own church congregation? Are you making beautiful music that inspires people to worship? This is where melody, structure, tempo, style, anything and everything can be formed, challenged, evolved, destroyed, and rebuilt into something. Are you writing stock lyrics or cliche music? Are you just trying to be edgy – to be different than the others?
5. Are the songs battle tested?
I have certain people that I will send songs to for critique. I show these songs to a few people I trust theologically and artistically. I know they will be completely honest with me about my work — if it sucks or is great. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. If everyone you show your work to says you are amazing, you probably are not.
I encourage you to keep writing. Songwriting is not something that happens overnight. But even when you are not satisfied with your work, you can reap great benefits from the practice.