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.
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.