Selecting New Songs

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I select new songs for inclusion in a worship set. In the past my process was:

  1. Is is Popular?
  2. Yes?
  3. Do the Song.

This doesn’t fly with me anymore. I’ve been trying to distill an informal process that I’ve been putting new songs through into something tangible:

Are the Lyrics Theologically Sound?

I was having a conversation with my pastor and his wife about this topic after my last worship set and someone made the statement, “It’s amazing how much you can get away with saying when you set it to music.” There are some beautiful, singable songs that have some seriously questionable theology in them.

I’ve probably swung too far to the conservative side of this argument, so I’ve been bringing new songs to my wife, who has thorough knowledge of biblical theology, and we work through the theology together. If it passes muster, it goes moves on to the next tests.

Some songs don’t have any observable theology errors in them, but they just don’t say much of anything. What value is there in that?

I was discussing this with a worship leader friend and he made the following statement: “When we choose songs, we’re literally putting words in people’s mouths.” Do we want to put meaningless or unsound words into the mouths of those we lead?

Is It Singable?

There are songs I can’t sing. There are songs I can sing, but I know the majority of our congregation wouldn’t be able to.

There’s two quick criteria that I use to figure out the singability of a song:

Melody: Does the melody of the song cover a large vocal range, low to high? Just cause I can get those notes out doesn’t mean everyone can. If the range is narrow enough, you can drop the key of the song, but if it’s too wide, you’ll start pushing the melody too low to sing comfortably.

Phrasing: I heard a worship song recently that had run of 16th notes with a new syllable of the lyrics for every notes. Unless you’ve been taking auctioneer speed-talking training, you’re not going to get all those words out cleanly. A great test for this is the “whistle test”. Whistle the melody; if it’s hard to whistle, it’s going to be hard to sing.

I heard the following statement on a worship leading podcast that I’ve been listening to, and it really summed this up: “The voice of the congregation is the most important instrument in the room.” If your church can’t sing the songs you’ve selected, what’s the point of singing them?

Is It Memorable?

Music sticks with us. There are songs I recall from my early childhood that I now sing to my daughter. Conversely, there are songs I’ve forgotten before they’ve ended.

Memorable songs have have a way of popping back into our heads at random moments; and can stick with for years. I’d be hard pressed to tell you the details of any sermon I heard ten years ago, but I can very easily sing the chorus of most of the songs I was leading ten years ago.

However, just because a song is memorable, doesn’t mean it’s a good song. This further drives home the point of verifying the theology of the songs we sing.

Also, It’s a lot easier to sing along with songs you remember.

What makes a memorable song? Typically a great lyrical or melodic hook. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hook_(music)

Can I Pull it Off?

There are songs I love that I’ll never do just because I can’t pull them off. There are styles that outside of my current ability, and I’ve come to be okay with that. I’ll play through a song a few times. If it’s not comfortable or stressed after a few playthroughs, it gets set aside. If I’m not comfortable playing a song, those I’m leading in worship will sense that and will be distracted or uncomfortable.

Is It Culturally Appropriate?

Jamal Hartwell of gospelmusicians.com has a great lesson where he discusses musical “memory banks” and how the music that we are familiar with connects with us. I love his gospel/neo-soul arrangements, but for the environment I’m in, the tritones, passing chords would distract from worship instead of enhancing. (Also, I can’t play his arrangements. No matter how hard I try, I sound like his “White Church” example. See “Can I Pull it Off” above.)

That’s my criteria for selecting songs. Even if you don’t agree with all my points, I’d encourage you to define your own standard to that you use to evaluate, just be sure that you have these criteria in place. Next week I’ll look at some thoughts on introducing songs to the congregation.

Tony has been involved in worship ministry for nearly 20 years. After graduating from the Calvary Chapel School of Worship, he spent ten years as a church staff media director. He currently works as a software developer in the healthcare industry and serves in various capacities at Calvary Chapel Milwaukee, WI.

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