Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

Okay, I’m going to make people mad with this post because I’m writing about music.

Songwriters, if you want a congregation to actually sing along with your cool new worship song, you need to know what this is. These few pages in the back of a traditional hymnal are called a metrical index:

from Church Hymnary, Canterbury Press, 2006

You see some little numbers in bold, and under those numbers are some tune names. Those little numbers show how many syllables comfortably fit the meter of a tune.

For example, in the above photo, John Bell has written some lyrics to fit his tune called “Lincoln.” The first line has five syllables, the second has five, the third has six, and the last has five: 5-5 6-5. The most natural way to fit lyrics to this tune is to write one phrase of 5-5 syllables and one of 6-5 syllables, like this:

Now that evening falls,
gently fades the light;
moon replaces sun and
day takes leave of night.

-John Bell

Judging from most of the contemporary worship music produced these days, I figure writing lyrics that fit a meter is either passé, or people just plain don’t know what a meter is.

Here is an example of lyrics that fit a meter:

The very first lines convey information about the rest of the song, and listeners can immediately predict the pattern of the verse: 9-4, 9-4. This makes it easy to sing along, clap, gyrate your booty, or whatever you do when you hear such stuff. Nearly every syllable has it’s own note in every phrase.

Here is an example of lyrics that are irregular or have no meter at all:

Now, as much as I like the song “Jeremy,” there is no way to sing along with it the first time you hear it. You cannot predict where the syllables are going to hit the notes, if they hit at all. Rhyme, which also helps people predict how to sing, is totally absent in this song. Again, I like this song, but it isn’t singable on a first (or second, or third) hearing. You wouldn’t actually use this song in worship, but it would be nearly impossible to do so for the simple fact that the lyrics are unpredictable.

U2, a band a lot of contemporary musicians try to emulate, also sing a lot of irregular lyrics. Now, if you listen to the words often enough and memorize them, you may be able to sing along with them, but if you try to get a group of diverse people who have never heard the lyrics before to sing along, you are pretty well guaranteed to fail.

I’ve heard artsy-fartsy songwriters criticize metrical tunes as being too “singsongy.” YES!!!!! Exactly! Singsongy predictability is what you need if you want a group of people to sing along. Using an irregular meter says to visitors, “You need to be a regular attender, an insider, to know and understand this music. Maybe you’ll be able to sing along after you’ve been coming for a few weeks.” No, thanks.

I’m going to go ahead and lay this out there—this is one of the reasons contemporary Christian music in white churches is so white. African-American musicians don’t seem to have this problem. In most African-American churches, the roles of the soloist and the choir are clearly spelled out, and anyone who wants to can sing along at least with the chorus. In addition to meter, there is a tradition of call and response:

Even funky lyrics that play with irregularity can be predictable. You can use rhymes and rhythm to create a predictable pattern, and then layer your soloist’s unpredictable lyrics over the top:

The ironic thing is that I’ve heard worship musicians say that the above songs are too much like performances. When I’ve said that worship music should be more like Ben Harper and Lenny Kravitz and less Bono, they make the same comments. Really? Who is easier to sing along with?

Even the most rhythmic and inspiring of white-people worship songs lend themselves not to groove, but to swaying gently with hands in the air partially because they have irregular meters. Check this one out by Chris Tomlin, and if you don’t already know it, try to predict how to sing it even when the lyrics are projected in front of you:

Here is how the meter goes:
First verse: 12-10-12-12-4
Chorus (first line): 55-13-6 (cheating because “Amazing” actually hits four notes)
Chorus (second line): 44-13-6
Second verse: 12-12-12-12-4

Not only are the lyrics complex, there are just too dang many syllables in each line. Again, I want to point out that I like the song just fine, I just think it’s lousy as a congregational song. It may have a place in worship as a special musical offering or a solo.

Here is a song that I really like. It has great lyrics, consistent imagery, and is just plain beautiful. But if you’ve never heard it before, try to figure out where to sing, even if lyrics were projected in front of you.

Again, I will say that I like this song. It is just not a good congregational song. This is where many music leaders object that if you hear it enough, you can sing with it, but that’s like saying an auditorium full of 20,000 Pearl Jam fans can sing along to Jeremy.

People often talk about the distinction between “worship” and “performance,” and they can get into all sorts of abstract arguments about it, most of them dealing with the subjective emotional experience of the individual. But when you worship you are dealing with a community, and the more relevant questions are things like, “What enables this body to act as one in praising its creator?” I think it’s primal stuff: bread, wine, water. Rhythm, call, response, melody, harmony. I wish more contemporary songwriters understood this.

One more thing with regard to meters: My pet peeve is the song “Hungry.” This song has a meter, but the syllables hit the notes in odd places.

I’m FALLing on my knees
Of-FERing all of me
Je-SUS you’re all my heart is longing for.

As a friend of mine from high school used to say, your emPHAsis is on the wrong sylLABle.

It drives me nuts that we have such a rich musical heritage in Birmingham churches, black and white, high church and low, mainline and independent, secular and sacred—and we keep singing stuff like this. It’s not that I don’t like songs by Chris Tomlin and David Crowder, it’s just that as a pastor and worship leader it’s my job to help a community work, pray, and sing together. It’s hard to do that with lyrics that are not easily singable.

I went to Innerchange UMC last Sunday (which I will talk about in my next post), and I loved the fact that they write a lot of their own music. The last song they sang was instantly singable and it had lyrics relevant to their own community. I would love to have such music in our new church.

8 thoughts on “Dear Songwriters: Please Learn This!

  1. Hi, I just read your article and would like to comment. First of all, thanks for posting about meter reading. A lot of people don’t know what that is. However, I think you are being unfair. A LOT of the Chris Tomlin songs and David Crowder songs are very easy to sing. If you sing it once or twice, you will know it. On the contrary, some of the old hymns have very complicated lyrics and difficult for people to understand. The goal is to glorify God and praise our Father with all our heart and all our soul. We can’t please everyone, but we are here to please God. More importantly, the songs must be God-Centered and not “Me” centered. There must be a balance in terms of old and new songs. I agree that SOME of the modern songs are difficult to sing, but so are a lot of the old hymns. For example, How Great is Our God by Chris Tomlin. How could you even think that this is difficult to sing? and the new David Crowder song, “After All (Holy)”, is just so easy to sing and memorable. This is not an issue with old is better new, but it reflects generation differences. Worship teams need to play both old and new songs, so that old people and young people will find a place where they can be spiritually connected and worship God with all of their heart and mind.

  2. i love writing music. i hate writing “praise and worship” music. i totally agree with everything you say here, but i just can’t do it without feeling like i’m coming across as cheesy or fake. so i don’t do it. that being said, i’d love to work WITH you, or whomever, to try and write some music for our community, from our community.

  3. Hi, Sonny – thanks! Yeah, I will confess to being unfair. I didn’t mention Stuart Townsend’s “In Christ Alone” (which sounds like a traditional hymn because it closely follows a meter), and I deliberately picked songs that illustrate my point. Kirk Franklin writes some songs with very irregular meters, and there are plenty of irregular songs that are worship classics. I also don’t mean to pit “old” against “new,” or “African-American” against “white” contemporary Christian music, because there plenty of counter-illustrations. But I think it’s safe to say that generally, white contemporary Christian music doesn’t groove.

    There are a lot of reasons people don’t sing. John Bell talks about a lot of them in his book “The Singing Thing” ( But I think a big one is that writers have stopped writing for congregational singing. They are thinking more about what will create an emotional high and not what will enable a community to sing together. I do agree that “you can’t please everyone” and that folks have different preferences, but I think people are more likely to sing if we write songs that are more easily singable.

  4. It’s just a shame the emphasis is on the music and/or style rather than biblical, God honoring words

    • Ted, I have to disagree that this is an issue about style, or that words are more important than, say, notes, rhythm, or meter. Why sing at all, then, if we can just recite a creed or catechism? Can’t music alone honor God?

      My beef is not with a style or genre of music, but with the fact that songwriters often neglect the fact that they are writing for a congregation. They do not consider how to include more people in the act of worship. To me, that’s as off-putting as the insider-language in traditional worship services.

  5. I don’t care for any of this so called contemporary worship. I say we stick with the old time hymns. Gregorian chants.

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