Songwriting tip of the day

The truly great songs are the ones that make you think, move you deeply . . . and, don’t have to be explained to be appreciated.

There is nothing wrong with deeper meanings and motifs in songs, those rich layers that you might only catch on your thirty-seventh listen. But, at least in Christian music, if the average listener cannot understand your main point the first time he hears the song, that song is not destined to go down as one of the greatest of its decade or century.

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32 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 partly agree with you. Certainly if you have a story song so obscure that nobody can make heads or tails of it, it lacks something. The best story songs are the ones that really TELL THEIR STORY. Perhaps there are bits of imagery and turns of phrase that would only become fully vivid after an explanation, but if the story isn’t there for the listener to find…

    • Well, I think I actually agree entirely with your comment. There can be a few phrases and images that aren’t fully appreciated till after an explanation, but of the overall story told doesn’t make any sense until after explanation, it can’t be a great song.

      • I would agree if you said it can’t be a huge successful song.

        Great and popular aren’t necessarily equal.

      • Agreed, and I think Daniel would agree too.

      • I would agree that great and popular aren’t necessarily equal.

        I’m talking of greatness here in the sense that “It is Well” is a great song and, same songwriter, “Hold the Fort” isn’t. Both are very good songs, but one is absolutely timeless, and has been the favorite song of untold thousands for 4 or 5 generations, and is quite likely to be running strong for at least 2-3 generations more.

        There are at most a small handful of songs fitting this (very high) definition of greatness to come out of each decade.

      • I guess what I would say is that if a song is the favorite of untold thousands for centuries, that is an attribute of greatness. But a song can be great without lasting for centuries.

        For me, the first very basic requirement (and there are many others), for a song to be great is that it be well-written. If it lapses into modern cliche, if it’s ungrammatical or otherwise shows a lack of familiarity with the English language, then I don’t think it can be great. Great songs are never linguistically clunky.

      • Here’s an example: “In Christ Alone.” Now bear with me here… it’s a good song. A very good song. But is it great? I don’t think so. Why? Because if you tried to use what you learned in elementary school about diagramming sentences, you couldn’t do it with some of these sentences. Take the second verse. It starts with a string of descriptive phrases, right?

        In Christ alone Who took on flesh
        Fullness of God in helpless babe
        This gift of love and righteousness
        Scorned by the ones he came to save

        So now we’re waiting for the thought to be completed, like in verse one. “In Christ alone my hope is found.” Similar would be “In Christ alone I place my trust.” But in Verse 2, we don’t get anything like that. Just a wandering string of descriptions, and then…

        ‘Til on that cross…

        Who, huh, what?? Where’s “til” coming from? What’s going on here? The cold, hard truth is that it’s grammatical scrambled eggs. It’s totally random and jumbled up.

        So that’s what I was referring to—a really great song doesn’t get itself tangled up like that.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement! Good advice for the song-writers in our family.

    I also like your comment, NewSoGoFan. The best songs, I think, are ones that effectively tell a story or paint a picture for the listener.

    Good food for thought.

    Taylor for the Garms

  3. I think where I disagree with you is in saying that a song cannot be great unless it is directly accessible by the average listener. Obviously, a song that lasts through generations will most likely fulfill that requirement, and I do agree with you there. But a song can still be great even if it’s not around a century later.

    • So actually, our point of disagreement is merely on the definition of “great.” πŸ™‚

  4. Upon reading this three songs immediately came to mind and i think they’re by the same writer but , not positive about the last one.

    Had It Not Been

    In The Shadow Of The Steeple

    The Greatest Love Story

    These stir me every time i hear them!!!

    • Here are some of my top ones:

      I Will Be Here (Steven Curtis Chapman)

      Go Rest High On That Mountain (Vince Gill)

      How Beautiful (Twila Paris)

      Give Me Jesus (Fernando Ortega)

      As well as innumerable hymns and gospel songs…

      Oh yes, and “Oh What a Savior” stirs me, but only when Ernie sings it. Which inclines me to conclude that it’s not a great song by itself, it’s the delivery that makes it come alive. πŸ™‚

      • Wow. I can’t believe everyone just let that one slide on by.

        Oh What A Savior “NOT a great song by itself.” That’s the most idiotic thing you’ve ever said. Bravo.

      • Well, Janet, have you heard it done terribly – say, over a dozen terrible renditions, and possibly two dozen – as I have? πŸ™‚

      • Hardly the point Daniel!

        A badly sung song will obscure [partly] the truth of good scriptural content, well conveyed in the original lyric…

        BUT, a well sung song will not compensate for the lack of truth or even implied error that may be therein.

        I’m not sure that “timeless” is the element being sought either, ‘Mountain Railroad’ is probably timeless, and capable of being memorably sung or mangled – but it doesn’t make it a deep or meaningful song, though it does convey a clear picture!

        I don’t often disagree with NSF, but I would have said ‘Oh What a Saviour’ IS a good example of what is being discussed – and Ernie never seems to tire of singing it with real power and sincerity.

      • Janet: Wow, I don’t think anybody has called me an idiot before. I feel so honored! πŸ˜€

        David: I have nothing against the power and truth of the lyric. There’s a reason why it moves Ernie when he sings it, and why it moves us too. However, my beef with the song is actually musical. If you take out all the drama of the piece, all the dynamic buildup to the high note, the little variations in the melody… frankly, you’re left with a pretty boring piece of music. If you just sing it “straight,” sticking as close as possible to the “normal” melody, without any drama, it loses a LOT of, if not most of, its punch.

      • In fact, I heard an old man whose voice had (presumably) seen better days sing it in a church I visited last year. NSF is right; done “straight,” few of us would point to it as a landmark song.

      • And Janet, considering that I’ve never called YOU idiotic before, I would humbly request that you at least wait until I do before you do so to me? If you won’t follow the golden rule, at least give Moses’ law some time to apply. πŸ˜€

        And actually, I have enough class that I never would (particularly here on this blog), so hopefully I would never give you the opportunity anyway.

      • To be fair, she didn’t say you were an idiot. She said you said something “idiotic”. That isn’t the same. One statement or act doesn’t make a person. You can do something idiotic or stupid or dumb (whatever your choice of words) and not be an idiot, a stupid person or a dumb person. Thank goodness or I would have been admitted to the nearest psychiatric ward a long time ago…

      • Technically, that is true… and funny!

        However, I think we should still work to keep this blog as far away from descending into “Avery-hood” as possible…

  5. I think the word “Timeless” is what we’re searching for here. (Very few TIMELESS songs in SGM) “Sweet Beulah Land” the original recording by Squire is TIMELESS! He actually had 2 on that album with “Oh What A Moment” Never to be duplicated, ever by anyone! Both these songs although cut 20 some years ago sound just as good as anything being put to radio today! It takes more then just a good lyric to be timeless. Its a combination of lyric, vocals, arrangements, instrumental track, and relativity.

    • Timeless is a great word for the concept I was trying to express.

  6. Hey to all. I’m a newbie. This has been very interesting to read as a Songwriter myself. I like sourceofpower’s comment. It would be interesting to GO-BACK and find what was the songs of the decade.

    “Come Morning” was the song of the decade in the 80’s. (i don’t know the rest, sorry) Written by a friend of mine Dee Gaskins. Does anyone else know the 90’s, etc?

    When I think of a current song that may fit the “timeless” description. I think of the Dove Brother’s song
    “I Can Pray”.

    I’ve noticed to, that just because a song goes #1 doesn’t mean it will become “timeless”. There are so many factors.
    IMO I think the song has to cross every bearer and speak to every heart the truth in the song.
    Plus, I’ve noticed if a song can have a very unique title and lyrics and melody (which, the word that sourceofpower used “Combination”) is the key.

    But, if we really knew, we could write a “timeless” song every time. So, the tip of the day is meaningful and right but does it give the insight to write a “timeless” song? No harm intended just looking at it in a humorous way.
    Very interesting blog.

    p.s. I also liked the point that the Holy Spirit has never wrote a bad song. Ouch! But, true!
    Excited being on board!

    • Welcome, Rick!

    • Welcome! πŸ™‚

      (filler, filler)

    • Oh, and as for the 90s song of the decade, that’s easy: Go Rest High On That Mountain. πŸ˜€

  7. Thank you. I love Southern Gospel Music! I’m glad I found this site.
    God bless

    • I’m glad you found it, too! I appreciate comments from anyone, but with my primary interest (other than blogging) being songwriting myself, I especially love it when songwriters chime in. πŸ™‚

  8. Thanks Daniel! Songwriting is such a passion of mine. I’ve only been writing about four years. So, I’m still new at it. Plus, I Pastor near Montgomery, AL. With God’s help I’ve had about 20 cuts in the last two years. With the latest radio single by Karen Peck & New River “Why Should I Worry”, Which is a song I wrote. Anyways, glad to aboard!

    Rick Simpson

    • Congratulations on the single!

  9. Thanks again Daniel. I’ve had 6 radio singles in the last couple of years. The Porter Family’s latest radio single “Sinner’s Prayer” is a song I wrote. Giving God the glory.


    • The name sounds vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure I heard of them.