What makes for a good song?

Music in services is always a thorny issue. Some people like old-fashioned hymns, others like modern praise songs. Some people like actions, others loathe and hate them. Some want loud and declarative, others quiet and contemplative. Our musical preference is always highly personal, and our ability to blend different tastes and different styles is perhaps to some extent a reflection how well we bond together as the body of Christ, despite our obvious differences. So perhaps there is no right answer to this question. But I suggest there are a few pointers:

Is the music easy for a congregation to sing? Folk always respond better when the tune is memorable, the rhythm straightforward and the range within their reach. There is plenty of good worship material out there which is performed by professionals. But what a professional can sing and what the congregation can sing are normally two different things. This leads on to a second, and perhaps less obvious point,

Is the music appropriate to the instruments available? Increasing number of new songs are written for a rock-band which is great if you have a drum kit, bass and guitar. Not so easy if the only instrument to hand is a piano. Equally a hymn which sounds great on an organ or a piano doesn’t quite cut it when played by a rock-band. Of course a good instrumentalist should be able to cope with a range of styles. But there are limits to what each instrument can do.

Is there a good blend of music? I have been to services with some great music. The only problem being, that most of the songs were all written by the one person, usually the favourite songwriter of the moment. We have a great wealth of hymn writing going back over 300 years, and there are nuggets to be found among the classics as well as on the latest worship CD. One of my most memorable experiences was singing to the tune of Rock of Ages a hymn previously unknown to me, written by Robert Murray M’Cheyne, When this passing world is done. (I should point out however that not all 9 verses of the original lyrics have stood the test of time!)

Are the words we are singing Scriptural? We learn a lot of our theology by what we sing. Even if folk cannot remember the sermon, or even the Bible reading, the chances are they will remember something of the words they have sung that week in church. It’s important then that the words we use are in accordance with the truths of the Christian faith. The song Jesus, we celebrate Your victory died a death a few years ago when folk realised that despite the great melody, the line And in His presence our problems disappear was, to say the least, problematical. Linked with this is another point:

Where is the focus of the words? Too many songs unfortunately begin with the word “I” and concentrate on my experience and how I respond to God’s love. Now there is a place for a few of these songs. But surely our main focus should be on Jesus, on all that He is and all that He has done. And urgently we need more hymns which express our common unity as the body of Christ. Otherwise even the cross can become all about what Jesus has done for me, as if I were the centre of His redeeming work.

Are the words appropriate to the type of service? Great, weighty hymns are fine for, say, a service of Holy Communion but maybe less appropriate for an All-Age service. Equally a modern praise song may baffle folk who are visitors to the church. This is not say we shouldn’t introduce children to hymns – they need to know and learn them – or encourage outsiders to praise, but we need to connect the music to the people we expect to be there. There is in many ways a link between good music and good pastoral care.

No doubt there are other issues as well, but at least I hope all this will encourage you to pray for the folk who choose our music. They often have a difficult and demanding task. And when the music works well, don’t forget to thank them for their efforts. Choosing the right music for the right service is a gift indeed!



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