Last week I met many of you at the 2011 National Conference of the Gospel Coalition. Sojourn led a hymn sing on Tuesday night, along with Sandra McCracken, Melanie Penn and members of Indelible Grace and Bifrost Arts. We also hosted a booth throughout the week, and were blessed by the conference sessions.
One such session I attended was Keith Getty's songwriting workshop, so I thought I'd pass along Getty's answers to the questions many of you have probably asked:
Why are the Gettys and Stuart Townend classified as hymn writers, rather than songwriters?
The hymn format means you can write songs that average 200 words. The average worship song only has about 40 words, so obviously can't be as deep in proclamation of biblical truth.
So worship lyrics should contain a lot of head knowledge of the Bible?
So much of the Bible is a songbook, because singing is a major way in which we learn. However, it's also a major way in which we express emotion. So it's important that our lyrics are not only truthful and rich, but also inspiring and moving. They can't just be dry statements of theology.
How do you develop your melodies?
We try to develop folk melodies that are easy to pick up. This is one blessing in being from Ireland – it's a very singable tradition from which to draw.
We want to write songs that work for traditional churches as well as contemporary. As musicians we are helping our congregations. We should ask "Is our congregation singing well? How did we help them?" They are the choir – we are the choir's accompaniment.
And remember that a song that sounds good in a studio isn't necessarily one that will work for a congregation.
Can you tell us more about your theory of lyric writing?
Remember that hymn writing isn't propaganda – it's poetry. You must learn that there is a way to craft a sentence that sings.
Christ often talks in stories. A song that tells a story is infinitely more powerful than trying to put together a theological jigsaw puzzle of terms. We wanted to write songs in a story form ("In Christ Alone," for instance) to engage everyone.
Finally, we need to write songs about every aspect of the Christian life. Go through all the different themes, stories, attributes of God.
Which comes first, the lyrics or the music?
The songs of Kristyn, Stuart Townend and myself almost always starts with melody. I'm a proactive person, and I'm the melody composer, so I jump out and write the music. Then I present it to my co-writers. That's the way it works for me, but there's all kinds of different ways of doing it.
What if you start with lyrics — how do you marry them to the right music?
If you've written a good hymn lyric you might be better off finding a good folk melody than to write or get someone to write a melody that is only going to let you down. This is because if you have good lyrics but bad melody, you've got a bad song. But unfortunately, if you've got bad lyrics but a really good melody, you've got a song that many people will like, never really thinking about the words.
Good melody writing is hard. In the past year I've written hundreds of melodies, but we'll only use about five of them.