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What makes a song “good”?

What makes a song “good”?

As we are discussing worship music in class, my students will sometimes ask “what makes a song good?” Very valid question, and one that everyone in worship ministry should consider.

Perhaps there are other questions that should be asked to get to the heart of the issue:
What makes a Christian song “good”?
What makes a worship song “good”?
What makes a worship song “good” for congregational use?

In his book “The Practice of Praise” Don McMinn shows a chart that looks like this:

While one could argue if classical music should be used in corporate worship to be glory to God (and I think it can) or whether or not this picture should be a more complicated Venn diagram showing more complex relationships on how music can be used in worship, I think his point of worship music being a subset of not just all music, but even a subset of sacred music, is true.

So what makes a worship song “good” for congregational use? I believe that there are at least 4 criteria that I would suggest.

1. The text is biblical.

While not all songs music be straight from the scripture, there should be some biblical basis for our songs. Scriptural references, biblical names of God, and scriptural allusions all strengthen any lyric. Even if songs do not have overt scriptural references, they should be at least biblical and theologically sound.

2. The text is universal.

There are some lyrics that in some songs that are used for corporate worship that are unclear in their meanings, confusing in their metaphors, and sometimes embody “stream of consciousness” that may have been true and meaningful for the songwriter, but not necessarily true for people for all time.

I am not suggesting that all lyrics be dumbed down. There are great lyrics that have profound meaning that may not even be caught the first time the song is sung. Great songs with great lyrics may not be immediately accessible.

The Solid Rock is an example of this: “His oath, His covenant, His blood support me in the whelming flood. When all around my hope gives way, He then is all my hope and stay”. While we may not totally understand how God’s oath, covenant, and blood support us on the first singing of the song, we do all have difficulties and understand that He is our hope in the midst of difficulty times.

3. The melody is singable.

This one is pretty simple: for a melody to be “good” for a congregation, it needs to be singable. Can the congregation quickly learn and sing the melody? Is the range too high or too wide? Are there melodic hooks or patterns that help the congregation grasp and retain the melody?

Again, I am not suggesting that music be dumbed down so that melodies are all quarter note stepwise melodies or trite predictable tunes. However, as a worshiper, there is nothing more frustrating that songs that you don’t know or that are difficult to learn. Songs selected for worship should be accessible to the average non-musician in our congregation if we expect them to participate.

4. The music is contextual.

Each church has a range of style that is acceptable for congregational worship. Sometimes that range is narrow because of people’s preferences. Sometimes the range is narrow because of the abilities of the worship leader or team. Sometimes it may need to be stretched to help our congregation not be stagnant in its worship style.

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Whatever the situation, and whatever our musical, lyrical or stylistic preferences, songs that are considered good should meet these criteria, should resonate with the congregation and inspire worship of our great God.

17 comments to What makes a song “good”?

  • Very good points. I like that you think the names of God should be included in the songs. We need to be specific that our adoration is going out to God alone. Some contemporary worship lyrics could almost be mistaken for the words of an infatuated teen for her boyfriend. I also like songs that mention the blood of Jesus because it is only by His blood that we have access into the presence of God–the Holy of Holies–which, of course, is the objective of a worship service. (Ex. 25:21,22; Jn. 4:24; Heb. 10:19) Another preference of mine, which I believe to be scriptural, is songs that are lively and conducive to enthusiastic praise. The Psalms tell us to clap our hands, lift our hands, dance, shout, and “play skillfully with a loud noise.” Yes, I am aware that it is difficult to break through the inhibitions that many have and praise God in that way, but there are many Biblical references to what I call “physical” praise. Romans 12:1 says to present our bodies a living sacrifice. This seems to be missing in many meetings, probably because it is difficult to achieve. Nice thoughts. Love in Him.

  • Hayden W Bradley

    I think maybe your best point was that the melody has to be singable. It seems pretty simple when you think about it but it can be a hard thing to accomplish as you write songs. Today we care too much about the way our music sounds and how “different” it is and sometimes forget how complex we can make things, not only for us, but for others.

  • Christian Frey

    This is such an opinion based topic. Some people, hate conforming to contemporary worship music and some love it. I thin it is interesting you included this diagram. It makes things seem much simpler than they really are. I believe that with songwriting, there is a lot of grey area. This chart shows things in black white which unfortunately is not the case. There is a balance we, as songwriters, must discover. What does our congregation need to hear, what do we need as an individual, and what does God need to say THROUGH us? So much to think about as a we write and it can be all too easy to write not out of honesty but out of effort to fit inside of a mold that Christian culture has given us. Definitely a good post to get me thinking though. I appreciated it.

    • Roger

      Agree Christian that this chart is a little “black and white”, and think that perhaps a more complicated diagram might be more appropriate. Listening for what God has to say is key. Great point.

  • Isaac Murrell

    Since these four cover all the bases for a song to be considered “good”, here are some of my other thoughts:

    First, it may be challenging for certain congregations to adapt to point 4. Many congregations are set in there ways and resist change. As fallen humans, its our nature to want things our way and feel comfortable. It may be challenging to help push certain congregations to accept that “good” worship music is glorifying to God. Today, the present challenge is in helping the older generation accept contemporary music. Since contemporary music is apart of the younger culture/generation, divisions are resulting in churches over music and style because the older generation isn’t comfortable with it. It is foreign to them, and most are quick to condemn it. With this, building relationships with aged folks and serving them at church and outside of church is of great importance. Contemporary music or sacred music shouldn’t be forced but applied when necessary and used in the right motivation to glorify God. As relationships are built and the younger generation serves the older, the older generations will begin to feel less threaten and see the hearts of younger folks, especially those who lead congregations in worship. These are just some of my thoughts on “good” music and aiming for unity in local churches.

    • Roger

      Agree. The point of number #4 was so that it fit the context of the local church. You point about motivation and even building relationships is spot on!

  • Brittney Miesse

    I appreciated the fact that the first point on your list was that the music must have a scriptural basis. How often do we hear “worship songs” that are more confusing than life giving? I mean it could be any old love song and have nothing to do with God, or it paints God in a way that is not scriptural. I believe this is the most important aspect of worship music. It is just as important to have scripturally sound music as it is to come to worship with the right heart.

  • Brittney Miesse

    While on the subject; I have a question that I would like everyone’s input on if they would care to share? Do you believe that “Above All” is scripturally sound? I knew someone who believed the line: “like a rose trampled on the ground, he took the fall and thought of me, above all” was unscriptural. I believe his reasoning for this was because Christ died for ALL people and not just one individual; and there was something about how Christ is not fragile like a rose but I can not remember exactly what all was said. I just remember thinking to myself: I do not fully agree with that idea. I do believe that Christ died for all mankind, but I also believe that he died for the individual; after all, he see’s when every sparrow falls and He cares. And as far as the rose; I believe it was just a beautiful word picture describing Isaiah 53 which states: “Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?

    2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

    3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

    4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

    5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

    6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

    7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.

    8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

    9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.

    10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

    11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.

    12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

    Let me know what you think! :D

  • Dani

    In thinking about what makes a worship song “good” for congregational use, the question that I have been debating is a question of if the song is of lasting character, or if it is more of a temporal filler. Songs that are based on cultural fads are probably not the best choice as a vehicle for corporate worship. Many times our choices of worship music are driven more by personal taste than service design. The joy of conversion, the greatness and majesty of God are common experiences to those who name Christ as Lord and Savior because they are ones in which the congregation may identify. Songs that tell of a personal experience that are unique to a particular person, or just a small group may serve well as songs of testimony, but may not be the most appropriate for the congregation. Congregational song, regardless of style, is an opportunity for the people of God to respond to God in worship and adoration, surrender and praise. It is that expression that reflects the unity of the Body of Christ and is best done through the identity of common experience. Corporate worship is dependent on a group of believers focusing on the worship and adoration of Almighty God. Something very special happens when that group comes together to express praise as the Body of Christ. A wise worship leader is aware and continually evaluates each song of each service with these things that have been presented being kept in mind.

  • I’m curious if you left out musical quality on purpose? I agree that the four things you’ve listed should be the first four criteria but it would seem that for any song to be considered “good” there must be something about it that inspires us musically…like the way music can give you goosebumps, etc.

    I’ve certainly heard, sung, and assuredly even led songs that met these four criteria but were too bland to really engage and inspire the church.

    • Roger

      Neil,
      Thanks for the feedback. Great question. I didn’t omit musical quality on purpose, but it wasn’t in my immediate top four list for a couple of reasons. I did hint at musical quality under #3 “Is the melody singable?” The melody should be well-constructed so that it is memorable and quickly learned.

      As I reflected on your question, it is also hard to define musical quality. Do we define musical quality by the melodic curve, the variety of the harmonically language, some other musical element, or just the way the music inspires us emotionally as you mentioned?

      I agree with you that music can inspire us emotionally. However, some song that might have what could be considered poor musical quality that could also inspire us emotionally. What about songs that could be considered musically boring like the pentatonic melody of “Jesus Loves Me”, the boring 4th range(and 4 notes) verse of “Forever Reign”, or the boring 4th range(and 4 notes) verse and incessant repetition of the melodic hook in “One Thing Remains” (Johnson/Gifford/Riddle)? All of these songs might be said to be of “poor” musical quality from a raw musical standpoint, but have all be very effective in worship contexts.

      Would love further discussion about this. Do you want to share any of your “bland” songs? : )

      • You’re absolutely right that we get into a really subjective topic when we start trying to determine which songs have musical quality and which are “bland” or otherwise lacking. But some of the other standards listed here can be pretty subjective, too. One imperfect way I use to tell if a song might be great musically is by checking how many people like it. Obviously there are great songs that few know about. Likewise, there are songs that everyone seems to be singing that drive this person or that person (or me!) crazy! But I still think that most of the songs we find on a list like the CCLI Top 100 can be safely deemed quality because a wide variety of people have found it engaging enough to share with their church.

        As for bland songs, I’ve been encountering so many of them as I weed through Christmas songs for ideas this year that I wouldn’t know where to begin :) Worship Together put together a list of Christmas songs that I looked through. Some of them were great. Some of them nearly put me to sleep! http://blog.worshiptogether.com/free-christmas-worship-songs/

        As for the songs you listed, it’s proof that good music comes in all shapes and forms. Some of it is complicated but, more often than not, it’s the simple songs that capture us the most. Thanks for the discussion & thanks for your work here, Roger.

        • Roger

          Thanks Neil. I think the music theorist in me prevented me from trying to quantify musical excellence. I think I could have put something like “Musically Attractive” as one of the criteria. Thanks for the question!

    • I agree Neil, as long as the other standards have been met first or else the congregation just falls in love with the song and the goosebumps they get from it. I think that too often feelings and emotional experiences are more important than faith or the Word of God; there is already a tendency toward shallowness in worship services. We should at least make an attempt to keep substance over style. But nothing beats a great song. Love in Him.

  • Jordan Redfield

    I agree that there are a lot of different implications to this discussion, specifically what kind of song you’re talking about and how you define “good”. I also would agree that it’s a difficult subject that is not necessarily a black and white issue. =
    If we’re focusing on what makes a song good for congregational worship, there are definitely some factors that generally apply to helping a song encourage a spirit of worship among a body of believers. For the most part I would agree with the given suggestions, especially that it must be singable; a difficult melody in an impossible key is not a good song for congregational worship.
    I do believe there can be exceptions and additions to this list. One example of an exception would be number 2, that the text is universal. I don’t believe this always needs to be true for a congregational worship song. Suppose a song is written by a worship pastor for his local body to use in congregational worship, and has strong messages or inferences in it that would only resonate well with that congregation. I still believe this is a “good” worship song for corporate worship.
    However, I do agree that these are very good general principles to take into account when evaluating the quality of a song for congregational worship. Other factors to consider may be the song is appropriate in terms of length, quantity of lyrics, etc.