How to Use Structure in Songwriting
What’s the biggest struggle in writing a congregational worship song? Congregational songs must be singable enough that unmusical people can participate and theologically understandable enough for new believers to benefit from their truth. But the biggest struggle I see when songwriters show me new congregational worship songs isn’t musical or theological. The greatest struggle in writing good congregational worship songs is structural.
Well-structured congregational worship songs do two things: they progress logically and they oscillate meaningfully. Let me explain what I mean and consider examples of what well-structured songs look like.
Start at the Very Beginning: Progress Logically
First, well-structured congregational songs progress logically. A well-structured song has a clear starting point, progresses logically, and then ends conclusively.
Songs that do not progress logically usually contain good pieces. Perhaps their lyrics might be evocative and poetic, or their theological truth might be weighty and important, but without a logical progression, these poetic and theological lyrics read like refrigerator magnet poetry—like someone wrote their favorite fifty-two (Christian) words on a deck of cards, shuffled, and then dealt out a song. (“Lamb,” “of my heart,” “I give you,” “all my soul,” “of blessing.”)
When writing a congregational song, ask yourself: “Why should the song start here?” And beware of the answer, “Because that’s the first line I wrote.” Sure, writing an initial line is an essential part of songwriting, but most songwriters testify that the best songs involve scrupulous rewriting. When I write songs, my first concept of the song usually indicates how the song finishes rather than where it begins. And knowing how a song finishes is essential. A poorly structured song doesn’t finish; it just stops. It doesn’t climax or cadence. Without warning... over.
Be sure to share your song with others (including both other songwriters and other, well, normal people). Be objective and play the song for them without explaining it. If the song needs a paragraph of explanation from its songwriter before another person can understand it, then it is not ready for public consumption. Write and rewrite your song until it progresses logically.
There and Back Again: Oscillate Meaningfully
Second, a congregational song must oscillate meaningfully. Here, I am talking about the way many popular forms of Western music oscillate between verses and a chorus (and sometimes a bridge, or two!). It is essential to recognize how these different sections of a song function. Usually, each verse uses different lyrics while the chorus is a single section that is repeated in between these verses. Songs with meaningful oscillation navigate this structure well. Each verse provides a different context to the repeated chorus, so therefore, the chorus gains meaning and perspective each time it is repeated.
Consider an example of meaningful oscillation in Bob Kauflin and Tim Chester’s song, “Come Praise and Glorify.” The chorus is a resounding exclamation of praise: “To the praise of Your glory, To the praise of Your mercy and grace; To the praise of Your glory, You are the God who saves.” The meaning of this chorus, though, changes and grows depending on the verse that the congregation sang immediately before it.
- The congregation begins by singing verse one, describing the blessing, predestination, and adoption of God the Father. Thus, when they sing the first chorus, the congregation will be praising the “mercy and grace” of the Father as shown in adoption.
- When the congregation sings verse two, they are describing the washing, redemption, and revelatory work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, when they sing the chorus a second time, the congregation will be praising the “mercy and grace” of the Son shown in redemption.
- Last, when the congregation sings verse three, they are describing the sealing, guaranteeing, and finishing work of the Holy Spirit. Now, when they sing that same chorus a third time, the congregation will be praising the “mercy and grace” of the Spirit’s merciful sanctifying work in our lives.
Work hard on your song until it functions like this, oscillating meaningfully as a well-structured song.
Separating Verses and Choruses: And So We Sing
There’s one quick way to know if your song’s structure is in trouble. Ask someone else to describe the lyrical difference between the verse and chorus. I know my songs are in trouble if my song’s chorus could just as easily serve as a verse. But how should a songwriter distinguish between these two sections of a song?
The easiest way that I know to distinguish between a verse and chorus comes from my good friend, Andi Rozier. Andi is a great songwriter (and an even better friend). His trick is to insert a silent little phrase in between the verse and the chorus. That silent phrase is “and so we sing.”
This little phrase, “and so we sing,” helps distinguish the verses of a song from the chorus by clarifying that the chorus serves as a response to the verses. Put another way, this silent phrase shapes the verses into expressions of information and the chorus into expressions of exclamation.
Insert the phrase into our previous song and watch the structure become clear. “We’ve been adopted through His Son eternally. [And so we sing] To the praise of your glory... You are the God who saves.” Or, as another example, consider the hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” This beloved song of the faith makes this silent phrase noticeable. The first verse ends with believers testifying to God, “I see... thy power throughout the universe displayed. [And so we sing] Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee: how great Thou art.”
That distinction helps our songs oscillate meaningfully between verses and choruses. And when our congregational songs have more meaningful oscillation, they will have a better logical progression.
May the Lord strengthen the structures of our songwriting so we can write with better logical progression and more meaningful oscillation. And may our well-structured songs help our congregations better understand and more fully live his glorious gospel.
Matthew Westerholm, PhD, (@mwesterholm) serves at Bethlehem College & Seminary as Assistant Professor for Music and Worship and at Bethlehem Baptist Church as a pastor for worship and music at the downtown campus. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three sons.