The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Songwriters serve who?

‘P.S. Are you singing any good new songs lately?’

This is a phrase that often comes at the end of emails sent to me. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seem to be more and more asking the same question, which is odd, because there are hundreds of songs being written every week and disseminated on the internet from all over the world.

What’s more, the theology of the songs being written is much more solid than in the mid-90s, but I’m still struggling to find new material that a normal congregation finds easy to sing. Even at the London Music Ministry Conference (which I help run) I haven’t been bowled over with confidence in the new songs we’ve presented during the ‘New songs’ session.

Ten million YouTube hits

What about ‘10,000 reasons’ by Matt Redman? Extremely popular, over ten million views on YouTube, two Grammys, lots of churches trying to sing it. But (and please don’t burn me at the stake — it’s only a song, not the Word of God, and this is only my fallen opinion…) it’s actually quite hard to sing when there are only 50 in the congregation, and it’s hard to play by the average Joe church muso. There, I’ve said it. It’s a good song to listen to and to sing along to, and it has helped literally millions of people delight in the goodness of God. That’s not the issue — it’s wonderful that songwriters are writing faithful songs that are being sung by so many people. The issue I want to address is the lack of strongly congregational songs being written these days.

Listening or singing?

This is down to lots of reasons. I have always believed that the main reason is the pressure on songwriters to write to the ‘listening’ market (CDs, mp3s, downloads, concerts, gigs) rather than congregations who want to encourage and admonish each other with the truth in a church meeting. Again, it’s a great thing to have concerts that proclaim the name of Jesus, but here are some humble pleas to Christian songwriters who want to serve the average congregation.

First, praise the Lord that lyrics are much more Bible-centred and less ‘me’-centred these days. Then, once you’ve written the lyrics, please write us tunes that are easy to sing, and that serve the words well. This word/music balance has always been a battle for Christian songwriters (and the music usually wins in the end!). We need tunes that make it as obvious as possible which note is coming next. If we’re always fumbling around for the notes it takes the focus off the words and we end up listening to the musicians again. One way of solving this is by writing the tune first rather than going for a chord sequence or riff.

Now I love guitarists, but this is the reason many songs written by guitarists are hard to sing — because their songs are driven more by rhythm than by melody. Put the guitar down, think of a tune, then pick the guitar up and shape the chords around the tune.

Second, please don’t try to be too clever (especially those who write songs from the piano). If you feel that your songs are a bit samey, please don’t ‘freshen things up’ by writing songs in crazy time signatures. Most drummers struggle to play them and congregations struggle to sing them — especially if the time signature changes half way through the song.

No bridges please

Third, we don’t need a bridge. No really, we don’t need a bridge.

I know that a bridge makes the song long enough to make it a viable track on a CD, and it can heighten the tension before the last chorus, but it’s yet another tune we have to learn the music to. Most of us leave the bridge out anyway, so it would save us all a lot of time.

To conclude, songwriters, please keep those songs coming, and please carry on working hard to help us sing great truths in our congregations, not just on CDs or on stage. We love listening to you, but we’d also like to sing with you!

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057