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Songwriting Workshop 2: Show & Tell

Perhaps you have experienced this embarrassing situation: You make a great presentation to a teacher, customer or business colleague, only to have them ask at the end, "So what's your point?"

We definitely don't want that with our songs. Our listeners can be interested, intrigued, even challenged. But we never want to just abandon them at the side of the road, wondering what all that was about.

One way to check if our song has a point, sharp or otherwise, is to think what 'action' our song will produce. What is it exactly that is going to prompt our listeners to think, to remember, and to act?

The Point of It All

We can just leave the scenes in our song out there for people to interpret as they please. Perhaps someone will find what we hoped for them to find, someone else may go in the opposite direction. How often have you been curious about the meaning of a song, and gone to look it up only to have the songwriter quoted as saying, "Hey, it means whatever you want it to mean!"

A great example of a song going nowhere is Viva La Vida by Coldplay. It has a wonderfully catchy arrangement, and it's the kind of nice harmony that could get it into the repertoire of a popular orchestra, even be performed at a Christian school. But while one band member says the song is merely about a failed dictator, others say it is about the end of failed religion as a dictator, still others say other things. Who knows what it means? Not even the band members all agree.

It is not explicitly Christian, or rather not explicitly anti-Christian, but the references to St. Peter, Roman cavalry, and missionaries could be taken that way. There isn't a plot, but there is a nice intriguing progression to the lyrics of the song, as each verse reveals more. In terms of 'action' that might cause a listener to think or do something good, it just doesn't do a very good job. It might be said to be criticizing any false religion, criticizing either real or false Christianity, perhaps criticizing the Roman Catholic church, or maybe ancient misguided crusaders, or perhaps all - or maybe none - of the above.

"It means whatever you want it to mean" sometimes seems to be pretty close to "Think or do whatever is right in your own eyes." There might be some very subtle encouragement towards good in such a song, but if it's buried so far that few find it, and, worse, many find the opposite, the song is arguably a failure when it comes to being 'good'.

It can be helpful to think of every song as encouraging good action, inaction, or bad action. Promoting good action is good, inaction is perhaps harmless, if a wasted opportunity, and encouraging bad is obviously bad. Most times, we would probably have to concede that "it means what you want it to mean" songs are at best a wasted opportunity, but if something promotes wrong beliefs and evil actions much of the time at all, we'd probably have to further and concede that they are bad. Catchy, but dripping corrosive acid on our souls is not something God encourages us to do.

So looking back on our reasons for Christian songwriting, and reflecting on our role as mini-pastors or mini-teachers, we need to promote what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely and of good repute.

Our songs, just like the bible, will still include accounts of sin, sorrow, and evil. There is a huge difference between telling stories that deal with evil, and telling stories that might glorify or promote evil. In fact, evil is so, well - evil - that we would not even want to risk accidentally promoting it by being unclear or confusing.

Ouch! Careful with that boulder!

So we don't want to veer off one side of the road, and leave listeners confused as to the truth we are called to speak through our songs. But it may be just as bad to veer off the other side of the road.

How can that happen?

If our song picks up a large boulder, holds it over the head of our listener, and drops it on them, our listener is also going to be confused too - but this time from the concussion.

And that is the best-case scenario, where they wait around long enough to let you hit them. They are much more likely to run for cover at the first sign of danger. They'll never hear the good news from you, because they'll already be listening to another station.

As Christian songwriters most often have something important to say, this is a particular danger. Just as a pastor doesn't want to let that big Christmas service go by without making sure everyone who comes only once a year hears the gospel, Christian songwriters may think this may be the only chance the listener will ever have. Better hit them three ways: Hard, Fast, and Repeatedly! (With apologies to Mike Warnke.)

There are most definitely times a message needs to be delivered with both barrels. It is wrong for us to shrink away from doing that when we are called to. Our best model there is Jesus himself, who was sometimes more than blunt in calling a viper a viper.

There are other times when we need to approach things in a different way. Jesus again is our model, where he chose to use stories and parables as the right way to take the message to a different audience.

How dare you say that!

We've reminded ourselves that people don't like getting hit with big rocks, but we also need to remember people don't like getting poked with sticks either.

How do we do that in a song?

Let's re-imagine a couple of lines you have probably sung:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like you...

Congratulations - you've just been poked with a stick. It could be worse, because in this case at least 'you' are being saved. It would be even more uncomfortable if 'you' in the song were a dirty, rotten, low-down sinner. Which you are, of course, the same as me and the rest of us here. But it is probably not going to help us reach someone if we single them out. John Newton instead chose to write personally - the 'worst' person in the song is him, and we are comfortable identifying with him. We may doubt that is the reason he wrote it like that, since it seems he did indeed feel it very personally, and it was entirely natural for him to talk about 'me' and 'my' failures.

Do we ever risk poking people with sticks in Christian songs? Yes, we sometimes do. You may have heard Michael W. Smith sing this Rich Mullin song:

Our God is an awesome God
He reigns in heaven above
With power and love
Our God is an awesome God

And the Lord wasn't joking
When He kicked 'em out of Eden
It wasn't for no reason
That He shed His blood
His return is very close
And so you better be believing that
Our God is an awesome God

Now before we go on, let's just state for the record that Rich Mullen wrote a lot of great Christian music, and took his faith very seriously. We are picking on Rich's song to highlight an important aspect of songwriting, we are not picking on Rich himself, who is in any event singing better songs than any of us, because he's now in the presence of his Saviour and Lord. So with caveats, apologies and appreciation, let's look beyond the writer to the words.

Now this is almost a fun kind of chorus in its way, but we better be believing that it's only addressed to Christians. It almost goes out of its way to poke non-Christians with a big stick. "But isn't that the point", you ask? You'd be right in saying we don't want shrink back from telling the truth: Avoiding offense at the cost of letting someone die eternally would be quite wrong. But 'we' in this song could be more completely honest, with better effect. Let's look back at that great Christian songwriting reference book - scripture - to test our lyrics against the gold standard:

  • It wasn't 'them' that the Lord kicked out of Eden, it was 'us'.
  • He didn't shed his blood just for those bad 'them', he shed it for 'us'.
  • His return could indeed very close, but as the ones that know that, and the ones commanded to act like it, 'we' Christians are often the ones that don't.

Yes, the lyrics are correct in implying the bible explains that when Christ returns it is going to be too late for someone to make a different decision - to stop rejecting Christ, and start accepting him. But the lyrics unnecessarily create an 'us-and-them' situation. It might help someone that doesn't yet know the Lord, but most of the time it looks more likely to reinforce the stereotype that Christians are arrogant and superior, or even childish - we have an awesome and powerful God, and you better watch out. Humble it ain't. Maybe safest to keep it inside the church just for Christians where it can't do any harm - hopefully none of us will take it seriously enough so that we adopt what could be seen as an arrogant tone ourselves.

But what does this illustration mean for our songs? Well, just about any story can happen to different people. It can happen to 'him' or 'her', it can happen to 'you', and it can happen to 'me'. Using your new artistic license, you can often rearrange your story so that it happens to the person that is going to do the best job of reaching your intended audience:

  • Him or her: Provides distance so that the songwriter and the listener can look together at something that has happened
  • You: If it's something good, like 'you' being loved, then it's personal; if it's something bad, like 'you' being a sinner, then it's separating the listener from the songwriter and poking them with that stick
  • We: The songwriter and the listener are in the same boat, sharing a common experience, and can journey together through the story, hopefully both arriving at the same place at the conclusion of the song
  • Me or I: If it's something really bad, the listener can watch what happens to us without being as threatened as if it happened to 'we', and it is the most personal for the songwriter, and for the singer

There is one special case: Worship songs. A true worship song must always be to 'you'. If it is not, then it is not to God, it's only about God. That can be an inspiring and wonderful song, but it's not worship if it's not to God himself. Similarly, the other character(s) in a worship song usually need to be 'I', 'me', or 'we', because true worship must go from us to him. (Yes, we have said that before, but we can see now how it needs to come directly into our lyrics when setting up our story.)

So for every song we write, even once we know what the story is, we need to think of which perspective will best communicate to our target audience. This choice is a very important tool in our kit.

In some good songs that really reach out to listeners, the song can be third-person, but the chorus or bridge of the song will veer towards 'us' or even 'you' to help the experience apply to the listener (often the precise words 'you' or 'us' are not used, but they are implied).

Note that in our sample song, we started out as third persons looking in on Ruby's imagined situation. We could easily switch it to write it from Ruby's point of view. We could even jam all our listeners into Ruby's little house, and make them the 'you' of a song. But as we consider all the possibilities, the natural approach, where we as songwriter and listener stand and watch things unfold, really seems like the best.

When we take a break in a few minutes, you'll have time to think about the best perspective to use for your song. To choose, it can help to sketch out the song in all three (or four) different ways, and see what feels most natural. Usually the best choice becomes pretty obvious, but remember you probably have a bias toward the first way you thought of the story, so give each view a fair chance to let the best one emerge.

A final point on the third person: It is also a good way to 'show' a situation to our listeners and help lead them toward the desired conclusion, where using the second person - you - tends to be more useful when telling our listener something very directly. And that leads us to the question of how much 'showing' versus 'telling' our song should do.

The right balance

In songwriting terms, it is generally said that we need to 'show', and only rarely 'tell'. Showing helps people see for themselves what is true, telling people just makes another unsupported claim that is easy to dismiss. By showing instead of telling, we credit our listeners with some intelligence, and we avoid clubbing them over the head with the boulder. They can figure a lot of things out.

But is it enough if we only show what, and never tell why?

"Preach the gospel, use words when necessary" is a pithy saying frequently attributed to St Francis of Assisi nearly a thousand years ago. His point was that we need to show the good news is real with our lives, as well as with words. His quote is sometimes misconstrued as meaning we should preach with our lives instead of words, but that of course would fall short of truly proclaiming the gospel. As Christians, we obviously need to show and to tell.

As Christian songwriters, we too need to do both. We need to show people what is true - with our lives and with the stories we present through song. We also need to tell so that people actually hear what God needs for them to hear. This is another place where we need to pray for wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so we have the right balance God knows is required for our listeners.

How could this apply to our sample song?

We could short-circuit the whole song just by saying "God is everywhere, all the time, even when you are miserable, and if you can't see or trust that he's there, then you sure are stupid. Amen."

That would be pretty much true, and certainly straight to the point. But apart from the fact it would be a pretty short song, it's not going to speak to the heart of the listener that needs to know that. Generally, we need to show first, then to avoid the confusion of the song being able to mean anything and nothing, we also need to tell.

Show And Tell Time

Our lyric story so far does the 'showing', now we need to think about the 'telling'.

We need to bring up the important question, which may not be that hard. We want to deliver our answer, or rather God's answer. And we need to find a way to do it gently, without dropping rocks on anyone's head.

The background question inside our sample story is the same one that many people ask "Where does God go when things go wrong?" Stop for a moment and think - what is the real spiritual question underlying your song?

A secular song might leave the question hanging, because there is no certain secular answer. Even where God makes it into a secular song, his place is often mis-represented or a false answer is provided. A great example is Julie Gold's hit song "From A Distance." You'd probably remember it if you heard it, with versions popularized by Bette Midler reaching #1 in the US, and by Cliff Richard reaching #11 in the UK. The song says that God is watching us - which is true - but goes on to say it's only from an uninvolved and remote distance - which is false. The song has more than one theme, and some of them might be laudable. But the take-away on God is "Even if God is there, he or it is far away, not really involved, and it's basically up to us to make it on our own." Come to think of it, maybe it's better for secular songs not to bother providing an answer if depressing or misleading news is all they have to deliver. Maybe better they stick to love, sunshine and lollipops.

We can't get away so easily, because we got that call. There's a message that God wants delivered to a listener.

Returning to our sample song: God's answer, and the important message we desire our workshop song to communicate, is that as the psalmists or prophets experienced, it doesn't matter where we go - far up or far down, far east or far west, or even in the stomach of a whale - God is never far away. Always. It is simply up to us, with the help of his Spirit, to decide whether we will recognize his presence. And God doesn't just want to be close, he wants to be deeply involved in our lives even to the point of dying to save us, and again with the Spirit's help it is our decision whether or not to put our trust in him, and allow him to be Lord of our lives as he is in the rest of the universe, and beyond.

Just a check on our audience - does this mean that our sample song is only for non-Christians? Of course as Christians we should know better, and we should never question or doubt. One pastor suggested that Christians would turn our sample song off because they might consider it heresy even to ask the question 'Where does God go?'

Now that is a good reason to get back and make doubly sure we aren't misleading anyone. When we check God's word, we find the scriptural reality is that even David sometimes questioned, and in fact it is rare to find someone in scripture that never questions. If someone only took Jesus' words "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?", they could get quite a wrong idea of both God the Father and God the Son. Then there are the many questions of the pharisees designed to trip up or trap. Or Satan's classic question, still repeated today because we haven't really caught on yet, "Did God really say that?"

We need to recognize that there are questions - even hard questions - that are made to bring out truth, and there are other questions that are designed to obscure or misrepresent truth. The questions asked by many bible characters were there to bring out the truth. While David questioned, he was also prepared to hear God's answer, and go forward trusting in the Lord. So the message of our sample song may be news to those not yet Christians, while still being an important reminder to those already Christians.

But the pastor's comment is a good warning to think carefully about who the song is for, and how we approach them. We must always be certain ourselves that we are speaking God's truth, and not misleading anyone that is prepared to actually listen - Christian or not yet Christian.

Writing the Perfect Song

Humans having the nature that we do, it is pretty certain you will not succeed in writing a song that even all Christians will accept, never mind all people.

Christians ought to be rightly wary of any hymn, chorus or song that is not perfect - yet there is no perfection outside God and his word. This reality explains why some congregations only sing songs directly from scripture - that's a pretty safe position. Every Christian song beyond the bible is flawed in some way, just like everything else we do is flawed. It remains a miracle that God can use us or our songs - flawed as both are - but he does. Nonetheless, in the same way that we are to allow God to work in our lives to make us holy, we need to allow him to work in our songs to make them holy too. Based on what happened when Jesus delivered truth to the world, we would probably reject a perfect song even if it hit us on the head. If your song is not perfect - and it won't be - don't be surprised if it does not meet with universal approval.

But remember, much as a preacher, we are accountable to God for what we say in song. That is serious. Not everyone will be open to what we say, but we must be certain - based on scripture - that what we say is true, and we must deliver our message in love, with courtesy, under prayer. That of course goes back to our songwriting foundation again - we must be immersed in God's word, the only reliable guide, and our heart must be attuned to his Spirit. Without that, we are in peril of misleading our listeners, and we know from scripture how seriously God has to take that. Does this sound like something we've said before? Good. We all need it to sink way in.

So our song idea isn't anything like perfect, but we now found two more critical pieces of our song that will allow God to take it and use it. We have the point: We have a question, and we have God's answer:

  • Where does God go, when our own dreams are falling apart?
  • God doesn't go anywhere, he is right beside us at the times of worst trouble, just the same as any other time.

We will need to make sure we put the question and answer in a form that doesn't injure our listener, but we now know the 'what' even if we don't quite know the 'how'.

In fact, you may have noticed we've done a lot of work on our song and we still don't have any lyrics yet, much less started to worry about amazing and creative rhymes. But we do have our story, a progression that draws interest. Our story leads to an important question, and we have a scriptural answer. If someone takes action on our song - trusting the Lord despite the hard times they encounter - our song will have provoked 'good' action.

Mission accomplished - now we have a complete set of blocks we can work with to build our song.

Deciding where and how to work your question and answer into your song may seem a bit artificial, but remember what you are doing is ensuring that the point of your song is not just lost in the story. Neither the question nor the answer may explicitly appear in the song, it is enough that you ensure they are embedded in the story (and that they don't get lost when you are fixing up a rhyme or making other changes).

Remember too that there are a million ways to write a song, and you may write a complete song without ever stopping to think of the Q&A. However, after your song is done, or rather after a first draft is 'done', then it is still beneficial to figure our where your question and answer is. Unless you stop and check that they are there, your song may sound wonderful, but it may completely miss the real life-changing soul-feeding impact that it could have had.

Exercise

Take a pack of sticky-notes, and write one for each of your main story ideas, your question, and your answer. You should have between four and ten - less and you may not have enough material for development, and more you may have too much for one song (or maybe just too much detail).

Note that your question may be implicit, but it's rare that there is a song without a question, since without a question to answer, there is unlikely to be a point to the song.

Try arranging your notes. If there is a clear progression to your story, it should not be possible to re-arrange the story elements out of order. If it is, consider refining one or more elements so the progression is stronger.

Next, you want to think about where the question comes. Is it going to emerge from the story? Does it need to be asked directly? Sometimes you will need to be a couple of verses into the song before the question makes sense, sometimes maybe the question can't be asked until the end, maybe as a final verse. See where it fits in your song.

Similarly, do the same thing for the answer. How is the question going to be answered? Perhaps the story itself answers the question. Perhaps given the story, even asking the question leads clearly to the (correct scriptural) answer.

Now that we've finished our work for this session, let's wind things up by looking at some lyrics that are really well-written. Click here to continue...

Is a song pointless, if it has no point?

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