By David Shead
Principles for choosing songs
How do we choose the right songs for the right times? The following are five principles to keep in mind.
The first consideration is, of course, the words. The words we sing must be true. But more than that, they must clearly and compellingly communicate the truth. Remember, when we sing, we’re not just stating facts; we’re engaged in worship as whole persons – mind, body, emotions, will. Words that don’t appropriately stir the emotions and the will might be worth reading, but they’re not worth singing.
So when we’re looking at the words, we need to look at them from both those perspectives: the perspective of truth and the perspective of artistry.
But of course there is a sense in which one person’s scribble is another person’s masterpiece. So we do need to consider the people we have and what kind of songs might be the most effective vehicles of expressing truth for them. There is no point in having a song list flooded with favourites from the 1980s if most of your congregation wasn’t born then! We don’t want a young adults’ congregation, or a young families’ congregation sounding like a convention for the over-55s (or a seniors’ congregation sounding like a nightclub). Therefore, just because I, as a song chooser, might really like a particular song (or, conversely, be unaffected by a particular song) doesn’t mean that we should or shouldn’t sing it.
At this point, however, a word of caution. Musical styles, to a large extent, reflect the cultural environment in which they exist. Musical styles gain their cultural power from their ability to effectively communicate the issues that are of greatest cultural concern. But the Bible isn’t particularly interested in the issues of greatest concern to our culture. The Bible doesn’t revolve around us, but it sets its own agenda. God tells us what we need to think and what we ought to hold as important.
This means that there may be some Biblical truths and concerns that a particular musical style simply doesn’t have the musical “vocabulary” to communicate. Why is it that “Be Thou my Vision” continues to be such a popular Christian song (and, dare I say, more popular, even (especially?) among young people, in its traditional straight 3/4 version)? It’s because it paints a picture of regal pomp and pageantry: the “high king of heaven” in triumphal victory procession. But in modern, thoroughly egalitarian Australia, regal pomp and pageantry simply isn’t part of our normal cultural experience. We don’t have popular secular songs in praise of the monarchy! In fact, if, in the movies, there’s ever such a scene, isn’t the soundtrack always in full orchestral, classical style? That’s our go-to musical language for throne room scenes.
If we want to sing about the glorious rule of our heavenly king, we mustn’t be afraid to select songs that use the appropriate musical language; songs that aren’t necessarily going to make the “Top 10” playlist of our local radio station. And the same may be true for other Biblical ideas, for example, boasting in suffering, or putting to death the sinful nature.
This leads to another thing we need to consider, which is the very different purpose corporate singing has compared to “performance” music. Not all songs (whether classical or popular in style) are appropriate for congregational singing. They may be technically too difficult, or with too large (or small) a musical range, or they may require a certain kind of professional musical backing to properly work.
Corporate singing is, before anything, for the gathered congregation. Every question of musical style must take a back seat to this reality.
The previous point touched on this, but it’s worth making clear. There’s a difference between a healthy meal and a healthy diet. A healthy meal is a one-off, but a healthy diet looks at what you’re eating over the long term. And so with corporate singing, we must make sure we’re having a healthy diet.
This means actively seeking out songs that help us to express together the full range of Biblical truth. If we only have songs about our righteousness through Christ’s death and resurrection, but not about persevering in faith through trial, or about confessing our sin, or about our future hope, etc., then an individual “meal” might be healthy, but our “diet” is not.
And given that singing in corporate worship is able to strengthen every element in the gathering, a healthy musical diet will also include having songs that can fulfill different roles, from calling to worship through to sending out to serve.
4. Frequency and lifespan
One of the big differences between songs and sermons I noted above has to do with repetition: you can sing the same song week after week, but no one preaches the same sermon week after week (at least, not intentionally!). The question is, however, how much repetition can a song bear?
It is a reality that even good songs can grow stale; that they stop doing what we originally wanted them to do. And often it seems to be the words that get tired more quickly than the music. So sometimes we can be singing stale songs (i.e., songs that have lost their clarity and effectiveness) without realising it, because we still enjoy the music. So we need to pay attention to both the frequency with which we sing a particular song and also its lifespan.
A new song can, of course, be sung quite frequently. However, once we’ve become familiar with a song, singing it too often can kill it for us. The last thing we want is for people to be enjoying the artistry without being committed to the truth; to be singing because the music still does it for them, but without any conscious awareness of what they’re singing.
My rule of thumb is that I normally try not to repeat a song within 8 weeks (the “8 week rule”). There are exceptions, e.g., when we pick a “theme song” for a particular sermon series. But in general, leave enough time between repetitions that it doesn’t feel like we’re singing “In Christ Alone” every second week!
In due course, even if you’re careful not to repeat a song too much, the time may come when you have to retire it. No one’s actually engaging with the song anymore; we’re all just going through the motions. It may take a few years to get to this point – or in the case of exceptionally good songs, even a few decades (e.g., “How Deep the Father’s Love”, which we’re still using 24 years after it first came out!). In some cases, a song may no longer be achieving its purpose because the musical language has dated too much. (This is the danger of choosing songs that are self-consciously at the “cutting edge” of musical culture; next month the cultural zeitgeist will have moved on, and the song will already sound tired.) Whatever the cause, one thing to do when a song has outlived its usefulness is to look for a new song that achieves the same things, and to make a straight swap.
This raises the question of repertoire: how many songs should we have on the go at any one time?
There’s no simple answer here. It depends on your congregation and their technical singing ability, their appetite for learning new songs, their level of attachment to old songs, the number of songs you would normally sing on a given Sunday, etc. Across the parish where I serve, there is significant variation between congregations on this score, from 150+ songs in our prayer book service, to about 45 (currently) in our evening service.
Over 150 songs works okay for the prayer book congregation, because they sing 5 songs each week, and the people are, on the whole, older, and have decades’ worth of corporate singing memory to draw on. The downside is that the best songs don’t necessarily come around all that often – although there are quite a few songs on that list that would only come up once a year, when the moment is absolutely right for it.
At the other end of the scale, I tend to think that 45 songs is at the very bottom end of manageable. Our evening congregation sings 4 songs each week, and if we were to stick to the 8 week rule of thumb, then we would need a minimum of 32 songs in the repertoire. But that gives very little margin for fine-tuning our song choices so that they are as suitable and effective as possible on any given Sunday and in any given situation. It also means that, in the longer term, our songs will grow staler more quickly.
I would suggest that 50-60 songs is not too many for people to learn and enjoy, and that it gives space to have a more rounded diet of singing. As people get older, the repertoire can be expanded a little to include a few once or twice-a-year songs from their Christian youth. But you always have to keep the specific congregation in mind as you do this so that it never becomes a sing-along of old favourites from the 70s. (You can do that, if you want, at a special event at a different time!)
What is corporate worship? (Part 1 of 9)
Why Sing? (Part 2 of 9)
What is the ‘shape’ of the corporate worship gathering? (Part 3 of 9)
What makes for good and effective singing? (Part 4 of 9)
Five principles for choosing songs (this one)
Choosing Songs – planning (Part 6 of 9)
Choosing Songs – preparation (Part 7 of 9)
Choosing Songs – order (Part 8 of 9)
Choosing New Songs (Part 9 of 9)