Several years ago I helped lead a songwriting clinic for a Vineyard youth camp. The focus of the clinic was how to write worship songs. Up until that time I had never really thought too much about how to write a worship song. So the type of songwriting advice I ended up offering had very little to do with the actual mechanics of a song.
My advice for writing a worship song was something like “1. Love God, 2. Love music, 3. Spend time with God with instrument in hand and songs will come forth.” Though my answer was pretty simplistic, it was what seemed to be my experience of writing worship songs. I have matured some in my growth as a musician and songwriter in the years since that clinic yet my initial stance on songwriting remains, though somewhat expanded.
As far as I’m concerned much of the typical advice for writing songs such as crafting catchy choruses, or having good melodic sensibilities, or solid structure—though helpful are not a good place to start. If you start there you may very well write a catchy song but “catchy” doesn’t necessarily mean good (remember advertising jingles are catchy songs that most folks detest, for example- “free credit report dot com”). While there are some common traits of great songs, most songwriters will tell you that the best songs come as gifts—almost like magic. Good songs are the fruit rather that the root, the manifestation rather than the source. The best an aspiring songwriter can do is to set up a situation, a context, a lifestyle, an environment where good songs are likely to be birthed. Now this doesn’t mean that there’s no work in writing a song, it’s just not the type of work that one typically thinks of.
Songwriting is much more related to farming than building.
To make good songs requires the kind of work that a farmer does: clearing the ground, tilling the soil, planting seeds, making sure the ground has water, sunshine, and that weeds are kept out. As for the actual growth of the plant and subsequent fruit, the farmer simply has to trust that the hard work in preparing the environment will end up fostering life.
I share this brief little story because I find that all too often we are looking for tools or techniques to get certain work in our lives done whether songwriting, business, family life or even spirituality when really we ought to be paying more attention to getting the context of our lives right. We must realize that the right thing in the wrong context is the wrong thing.
If we are always building and never farming we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of growth or “life” in our lives. When we find ourselves disconnected from our hearts and our passions, going through the motions, simply trying harder and getting busier won’t do. What needs to happen is that we stop for a moment to begin asking ourselves the types of questions that farmers ask:
How’s the soil?
Are we getting enough sunlight and water?
Are we overgrown with weeds and suffering from neglect?
What types of things are we planting in our hearts?