What would it feel like for people to love your songs like they love “Lord, I Need You” (Nockels, Carson, Reeves, Stanfill, Maher), “In Christ Alone” (Townsend, Getty), and “Holy Spirit” (Torwalt)? What would it mean to you to walk into a room filled with thousands of worshippers, hands lifted high, tears streaming down their faces, their hearts filled with a sense of the presence of God, and all because of a song you wrote?
Here are five of the most important songwriting principles I know that can help you write the kind of songs people will truly love.
First: Stop writing from your heart.
Okay, I know that sounds almost blasphemous, but hear me out. I was on the phone with a songwriter recently who felt very passionate about her call. I asked her if she’d had any song training and her answer was, “Oh, no, I don’t need any. I just write from my heart.” This is the kind of thinking that will keep her songs in complete obscurity. She may have written them “from her heart,” but that’s not the test of greatness. People are.
Writing from your heart only works if you know how to capture the whisperings of the Spirit in the most compelling ways. You’ve got to add skill to the heart’s impulses in order to release its deepest messages effectively. Otherwise, your songs mean a lot to you, but very little to anyone else.
Put yourself in the place of your listeners. What reaction do you want from them?
Second: Stop writing for yourself only.
Most songwriters think of songwriting as self-expression, but that’s only partially true. People tire quickly of hearing your pain in your songs. Put yourself in the place of your listeners. What reaction do you want from them? To feel sorry for you, or to worship Jesus? Write your songs with the end-user singing in your ears. Your job as a songwriter isn’t just to express yourself, as good as that may be, but to actually capture the heart cries of your listeners and set them free with your songs. Think about Chris Tomlin’s song “How Great Is Our God” (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves). That one phrase so perfectly captures the feeling of praise and worship that it will be sung for decades to come.
Third: Great songs start with great ideas.
Most songwriters sit down to write without having spent any time exploring the value of their ideas. The one thing you can do today to stand out is to spend time on your ideas first, making sure they’re worth writing before you even start.
How do great ideas happen? They happen in conversations with friends, or from something you hear in a sermon. They come from books, or the Bible, or ancient literature. They come from watching a movie, or from a dream or a random thought sparked when two ideas that wouldn’t normally fit together collide. The greatest songs are written from the greatest ideas. The more time you spend developing lists of great ideas, the better your songs will be.
Fourth: Stop trying to “write on empty.”
If you expect to write great words you have to be filled with great words. It’s amazing to me how many aspiring songwriters never study language. They never read books. They never listen to podcasts or fill their minds with words that can become great ideas and great hooks and great songs. How does anyone expect to master songwriting without great influences from literature, poetry, or even other songs?
There’s a Latin phrase, ex nihilo, that means “out of nothing.” That’s how a lot of songwriters go about writing. They sit down and try to write out of nothing. Their heads are empty. Their minds are fruitless because they’re so filled with the busyness of life that they simply have nothing to say. Do yourself a favor and fill your heart with words that are inspiring, encouraging, magnificent, magnanimous, holy, awesome, and beautiful. Then watch to see if they don’t spill out in your own beautiful words.
Fifth: Discover what makes you unique.
Since literally anyone can put words to a melody and call it a song, you need something extra to stand out from a million others vying for the same little bandwidth.
What is that something extra? Originality. A lot of people put words to music and call them songs, but it’s only those writers that can stand out that make a real impact. What is originality and how do you get it? First, I believe it’s something you already have, even if you’re not aware of it. God’s given you fingerprints like no one else on the planet. He’s given you something that makes you completely and uniquely you. Find out what that is, and then find ways to bring it into your songs. We don’t need another Chris Tomlin. We need you.
Great songs are an amazing blend of inspiration, skill, and creativity. Use these five principles and get started today writing the kinds of songs that people will love for years to come.