Music that Inspires: Choosing Worship Songs Part 3

Christian Copyright Licensing International (or CCLI as most in the worship world refer to it) is the main licensing company for contemporary worship music.  Because copyright law prevents people and organizations from performing other musicians’ work in public without a license, companies like CCLI (and ASCAP in the secular realm) allows people to purchase the rights to sing and play popular music in public.  In other words, the only way to play worship songs in a church legally is with a CCLI license.

While this may seem like a hinderance (and frankly copyright law is always a necessary hinderance) CCLI also provides some helpful resources for church musicians.  One of these resources is the CCLI Top 25.  As part of a license, churches are required to report their song usage for different periods of time to help determine how the songwriters should be compensated.  But the licensing company also uses this information each month to determine which worship songs are being played the most in churches around the country.  This list is a gold mine for worship leaders trying to find songs for their congregation.

Over the last two posts I’ve talked about the first two criteria I use in selecting new worship songs: accessibility and theology.  This post will cover my third criteria:

The third criteria I use when choosing new songs is artistry.

Artistry is basically another word for assessing the beauty and significance of a piece of music.  This may seem like a strange category to include for the selection of worship songs, but it’s actually very biblical.  Over and over again in the Psalms, the Psalmist writes about God’s glory, majesty and beauty experienced by those who come to worship (Psalm 27:4).  That beauty is then to be expressed by people as God’s image bearers.

The TabernacleIn Exodus 26 and 27 God instructs Moses to build a tabernacle to be both the place where his presence would dwell among the people and where the people would worship Him.  It is impossible to read those chapters without recognizing the sheer beauty of the tabernacle.  Gold, silver and bronze metals, purple, blue and scarlet yarns, acacia wood and goats hair were all used to construct this house of God.  Not only that but the work featured intricate embroidery and metalwork by skilled artists.  Even more beautiful materials and a higher level of craftsmanship were then used in the construction of the Temple by King Solomon.

Unfortunately many in our day assume that God does not care much for beauty.  We live in a world where function is often seen as more important than form.  Yet the biblical story is one where beauty on the earth is a small, faint expression of the infinite glory of God in the heavens.  As we experience the beauty of God’s creation, we get a small taste of the beauty of God himself.  This is why artistry is so vital in our worship music.

So how do we judge the artistry of worship songs?

2 Artistic Musical Considerations

At a practical level I specifically look at 2 main elements when assessing the artistry of a worship song.

Lyrical Poetry:  First, I start by looking at the lyrics of the song with the question in  mind, “Do these lyrics express theological truth in an eloquent way?”  This applies both to the lyrics that are used and the structure in which they’re arranged.

There are a handful of phrases that have become rather common places in contemporary worship music.  Phrases like “you alone we worship and adore,” “I lift my praise to you,” “for your glory and fame,” and others are found in many, many worship songs.  Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with these phrases (most of them are straight from scripture) but when every new song that comes out apes at least some of these, we need to question our level of creativity as songwriters.  I look for songs that use deeper levels of imagery, or more eloquent expressions of doctrine that give a poetic sense to the song.

Likewise, I look for songs that have a well thought out poetic structure.  The best poetry uses well thought out meter, rhyme schemes, and poetic devices like alliteration to bring a sense of beauty to the lyric form.  Many worship songs use rhyme and structure haphazardly, changing meters in the middle of verses, rhyming words that don’t really go together, even using poor grammar to make lyrics fit within a melodic rhythm.  Good artistic songwriting means seeing these poetic structures as opportunities to take advantage of not obstacles to be done away with.

An excellent example of poetic lyrics done well is a recent song we introduced called “Grace So Glorious” by Elevation Worship.  The first verse is:

Beneath the cross of Jesus Christ
No shadow remains for shame to hide
Redemption shone for all to see
Perfection bore our penalty
With a grace so glorious

The subject of the song is a familiar one about our salvation through the crucifixion, but the writers in this case represent it beautifully with poetic lyrics that allow us to express this truth in a fresh and vibrant way.  That is the power of poetic lyrics.

Musical Significance: The second thing I look at when assessing the artistry of a song is its musical significance.  This is just a way of referring to how beautifully the music is composed.  Mainly this involves analyzing the melody and harmonic progressions of the song.

Many melodies today are, frankly, boring.  They use too many repetitive notes  or they don’t allow the melodic lines to move in a way that is interesting to sing.  Much of this is because worship songwriters are trying to write songs that are accessible to people without musical training, which of course is very important.  But too often this leads to stagnant, pedestrian melodies. Writing a beautiful, singable melody is challenging but it’s worth it.

510587348_1e95598348_zLikewise, the harmonic progression (or chord progression) of a song should be interesting and unique.  A friend of mine has a t-shirt with the tab of 3 guitar chords, and underneath it says “Now Start A Band”.  Too often this shirt reflects the reality of worship music.  If our songs are going to be aesthetically beautiful we have to get away from the usual I-IV-V-I chord progressions of so many worship songs.

One of the best examples of musical significance is the song “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher.  You can listen to the bridge section below:

The melody of this bridge is interesting yet singable, incorporating a kind crying out effect at the beginning of each line that expresses the meaning of the lyrics perfectly.  And the harmonic progression creates a sense of tension by avoiding the root position tonic chord until the last chorus.  These are small details, but they make a huge difference in the musical artistry of the song.

Of course in all these things beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The criteria I use in my western suburban context will be different than what people use in Africa or Asia or even inner city Philadelphia.  But the main point is that beauty has intrinsic value that should be expressed in our worship. Beauty will only become a vital component to our worship if we as worship leaders demand it.

For most of western history, the Church was at the forefront of artistic expression because it believed the beauty of God should be reflected into the world through the creative expression of those who bear his image.  As we choose worship songs to sing each week, we would do well to recapture that vision of beauty.

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About Stephen Wilburn

I am a worship director at a suburban Philadelphia church and currently a doctoral student at Biblical Seminary in Hatfield, PA
This entry was posted in Practical Worship Leading and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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