One difficult adjustment for songwriters writing worship music is changing their approach to syllable consistency. When you’re writing solo performance music, there is a great freedom to add variety between verses. Say the first line of your first verse is “Jesus loves me, this I know,” and you add a second verse that begins with “Jesus died for me, this I know.” In a solo performance, you can mold the melody to accommodate the extra syllable (”died for” instead of “loves”).

The problem arises when this solo performance approach to songwriting is used to write congregational music. To make a song easy to learn, it helps to keep the syllabic content of each verse consistent. Otherwise, as the congregation is trying to grasp the way your melody fits with the text, you are changing it on them and making it much more difficult to learn. Dropping or adding syllables to lines in different verses may seem natural when you’re writing from a solo perspective, but for a congregation, it is frustrating and makes the song much harder to grasp and retain. In addition, a consistent meter is equally important- the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. ”Underwater,” which has a stress on the third syllable, should not be replaced in a following verse by “sanctuary,” which stresses the first syllable.

There is a very popular song that has been used fairly regularly at the last three churches I’ve been involved with. Despite the fact that the song was done often, the same problem seemed to happen every time, at each church. While most of the song was sung by the congregation with enthusiasm, the first lines of each verse became a dull roar of confusion. The problem? The first line of verse 1 uses 5 syllables, the beginning of verse 2 also has 5 syllables, but a completely different meter, verse 3 starts with 9 syllables (!), and yet another completely different meter. This problem takes away from an otherwise well-liked song.

This can be hard to catch, though, when you’re used to writing songs for yourself to perform (as I am). It’s not the end of the world, either, if there are inconsistencies within a song. But if a congregation is going to learn a song quickly, and be able to remember how to sing it the next time, consistency is an important ally.

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Comment by Wayne Pau on June 1, 2009 at 1:57am
This was an absolutely great post!

I don't think people think about beats and syllables enough. As a drummer bars are important to me. However, as a vocalist, what often makes a great presentation is vocal expression and emphasis. If you change the number of syllables, it breaks down the symmetry of a song, as the verses aren't equal anymore, often changing the accent notes but more importantly as you said, it makes it really hard to sing!

I think one thing that is a lost art is lyrics, in the background of syllables and accents, something that poets (and poetry readers) are much better at. Words like "and", "to", "the" aren't important. "Lord", "Life", "Jesus", those are the key words and should be the emphasis. It should the same beat/syllable emphasized every time. I'm glad that there are still some song writer who understand the tools of a poets. It's not merely enough to have a sentence "fit" size wise, it should "fit" feeling wise too. (Good rap artist seem extremely adapt at this...)

I think one thing also hurts us is how some older English hymns have been "modernized" lyrically. Unfortunately sometimes we change words like "'Twas" to "It was", which is going from one syllables (if I'm right) to two syllables. The author used that word for a reason. We have to be careful that we preserve the beats/accents. Heav'n vs. Heaven. If you are going to do this, just make sure you're aware and not randomly adding in counts to a bar and expecting your band to follow you.

Singers/Vocalists can't be lazy either. Put some effort to make sure you're signing the same way for all the verses. The congregation is going to learn what you teach them. Work on *all* the verses, don't just assume you can sing them because you've nailed the first verse in practice.
Comment by Joel Hinck on June 1, 2009 at 12:44pm
Thanks, and great points! I agree, a sense of poetry is often missing in our contemporary music- both in the lyrics and the performance.
Comment by Junjie on June 9, 2009 at 2:22pm
You don't know how bad it gets until you have heard songs totally messed up with Singlish (SIngaporean English)... :)

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