How should songs be picked?

Whether for a full-time group, a part-time group, or a church music program, many of us will be in charge of picking songs at one point or another. How should we go about it?

Of course, songs have to meet a few basic criteria to be acceptable. Lyrically, it must avoid heresy. Musically, the vocal range required and the complexity of the melody and harmonies need to be something within the capabilities of the vocalists.

Picking acceptable songs is easy enough. Picking good songs is a little harder, but well within the reach of most people with a basic level of musical talent. The lyrics ought to offer unique insight, and the melody ought to be unique enough to be easily memorable.

Picking great songs, though, is a far less common skill. But perhaps one simple technique could make it far easier for those of us who, well, aren’t quite Brian Free or Steve French.

The greatest songs are great for a broad cornucopia of reasons, but they all share one essential characteristic: Staying power. Whatever it might be that makes the song great, that song will resonate in the minds and hearts of listeners of all talent levels for the rest of their lives. These are the songs people request on fifth Sunday hymn sing night or at the product table for years and years. 

Since the greatest songs are great for any number of lyrical and musical reasons, it could be said that staying power is the only universal characteristic they all share. Therein lies the key to finding great songs.

Don’t procrastinate when you’re picking songs. Don’t wait until three weeks before your studio date to start listening to songs. Start six months early. Listen to songs a three or four of times, and then set them aside for a month—or two. Which do you remember without any reference to the lyric sheet or demo?

The same applies to church music. Many churches only introduce 1-4 new songs each year, and even ambitious (or radio-chart-driven) churches rarely introduce more than 5-10 songs. That’s not many songs. With that few slots, it’s perhaps even more important to take the time to pick the greatest songs.

This especially applies if you are also a songwriter. Viewing your own songs objectively gets easier with time; six months may be good for others’ songs, but a year or more helps greatly to provide perspective for your own.

The reasons a song stays with you will be diverse. But whatever the reason, the great songs will be the ones that you simply can’t forget—and don’t want to forget.

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11 Letters to the Editor

Southern Gospel Journal welcomes letters to the editor. We will post the most thoughtful and insightful submissions. Ground rules: Don't attack or belittle groups or fellow posters, or advance heresies rejected by orthodox Christianity. Do keep comments positive, constructive, and on topic.
  1. I had to read a again to make sure I didn’t miss a point, but a great song ministers to the singer. Quite often I will pick very obscure songs to sing, as long as they touch my heart and leave me wanting to worship God even more. I have heard many songs by artists that left me wondering why they recorded them and have chalked it up to that reasoning; It was because the lyrics spoke to the singer. Same goes with preaching. Some of the best preachers/speakers I have ever heard have told me this and I believe it; That they approached sermons like speaking to the mirror. They didn’t want to be above the message they were bringing to their congregation. I’m the same way about the songs I sing…it MUST mean something to me.

  2. Great subject!

    I would guess that many groups managers never stop looking for material. It is a year round pursuit.

    I like to listen to the demos dozens of times. This allows time to think about what member of the group would sing it, what place in the program it may fit, all the different arrangement possibilities. I also like to think of the various venues we sing in and how it might be received in each enviornment. Example, will it work at First Atlanta Sunday morning AND/or The Brumey Sing, NQC, Gaither Stage etc….

    Looking for songs is one of my passions.


    • Thank you!

      Some group managers do look all year. Those tend to be the ones who find the best songs – the ones least likely to come out with a record full of good-but-not-great songs because they couldn’t find great songs in the six weeks prior to a recording session.

      I love the insight about thinking through how a song would be received in different venues.

  3. I can’t imagine only giving a few weeks for the pursuit of what the entirety of the groups foundation is. The song the song the song… From there comes the message and style of which people will listen and be influenced by.

    Now I certainly have missed the mark many times…. But it wasn’t from a lack of effort in the pursuit.

    • Michael, I feel the same way as I lead music each week. Sometimes it doesn’t work out like I thought it would or the congregation doesn’t engage like I had expected. However, typically, it’s not going to be because I threw it together in a day or two. We’re 6 weeks out on most of our music… at least roughly. When we “blow it” or “miss it,” I don’t want it to be because we didn’t prepare properly.

      By the way, Daniel, we will introduce/teach somewhere between 12 – 18 new songs (congregational songs) a year. My goal is to introduce 1 new song every 3 or 4 weeks. We sing if for 3 or 4 weeks straight, then add it to our sets. A song might be out for a year or so before we learn it. The clear advantage to that is that, in many cases, I will hear a song for quite some time (and see/hear how well it is being received in other churches) before we do it. Of course, there are times when we learn the songs shortly after it hits the radio. But typically, that’s not the case. I spend a good bit of time on Mondays listening to “new” music and keep a list of songs that I would like to teach. Obviously, I’m looking for songs that are singable, contain doctrinal truths & will be meaningful to our congregation. For what it’s worth, that’s how I do it.

      • Wow! I think 12-18 new songs per year is more ambitious than any church I’ve been a part of. But if the congregation can keep up with it, then I’m all for it! That’s pretty cool!

        Also, the year or so average delay is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when drafting this. You’ll get to see which songs stick.

      • My church is similar on the number of songs we introduce in a year, but not all songs stay around for more then a year. In our church many of the songs our requested by members of the church who are not specifically involved in worship leading/accompaniment. It’s often the case that some songs will resonate with some but not all of the congregation, but I have no doubt that the songs that will stay are those that resonate with every member.

  4. It’s interesting that should show up today. I just had someone mail me some songs today.
    Like Michael we are always on the lookout for songs that fit us, and are scripturely( spelling sorry) based. One of the things that we do at NQC is approach as many of the songwriters that we know (and know us) and ask for songs. Also we have had some songs that someone has dropped off at our booth that have made it to one of our projects. I have been around for a long time and sometimes when I am listening to an old record and heard a song and said.”that’s a perfect song for ***** and the message is great.” I know you have heard “we have listened to hundreds of songs” but it’s true. to find 12 songs that fit what you are trying to say, and fit them to the people in your group, and for the project to flow properly in not an easy task. Sorry I didn’t mean to write a book it just started flow.

  5. Like the rest of y’all I’ve had to listen to demos for months. However a couple of our songs I picked a month ago and had the guys listen to it and one of those will be our (Jordan’s Bridge) first release to radio. I had no idea what we would do for radio but this song writer sent demos to us. Not gonna say his name but initials are RG. Yesterday I went and tracked all 10 songs for the project. Last time I was a part of a group that had a last minute song we recorded was the Anchormen. Back in 1990 Biney English was singing lead. He sang part of the song amd i arranged “I’ve Been Touched”. I believe it peaked at #3 in Singing News. I hope this song we have gets close.

  6. BTW I’m gonna try what all you guys have mentioned. There’s a lot of Mike’s and Micahels on here. Lol. I just thank God for the chance to be part of the greatest music in the world. Any song proclaiming that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords has to be the most awesome.

    • Yes, sir! That is the highest theme known to mankind, the highest theme in the universe!

      There may be room in a Christian’s life for songs on lesser topics, from time to time, but there is most certainly no higher theme than this one!