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.