Writing Psalm Songs
Whether painting a canvas, “becoming” a character in a film or shaping a sculpture, every artist has a creative process that aids in achieving the best possible end result. I have been a musician and singer/songwriter for most of my life and have written, composed and arranged many songs. Setting the Psalms to music presented new challenges that I hadn’t encountered before and I thought it might be interesting to share a few elements of my process with you over the next few weeks. Let’s use Psalm 8 as an example.
The Form of a Song
Most songs today have a very predictable form: verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus. From the music of The Beatles to James Taylor to Michael Jackson to John Mayer, this song form has become a staple and one with which listeners can easily connect. Because of this fact, I try to stick to this same form when writing music to the Psalms and the result feels smoother than jumbling a bunch of words over a chord progression. Before thinking about the
music, I divide the Psalm into different sections. For example Psalm 8 follows this structure:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
You have established strength because of your foes,
To still the enemy and the avenger
When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars which you have set in place,
What is man that you are mindful of him,
And the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
And crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
You have put all things under his feet
All sheep and oxen and also the beasts of the field
The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the seas,
Whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
This form follows very closely the one I described above. The chorus was easy to pinpoint in this
case, because it is mentioned word for word more than once. In most music, the chorus doesn’t
change and is the “glue” or main idea that holds everything together. Since much of the Psalm talks
of God’s majesty in creation, thematically it also seemed like the logical choice.
With the exception of the chorus, each section has a very symmetrical pattern and can easily take on a similar melody and rhythm. Even with the absence of rhyme and meter, the (psalm) song can still take shape. Think about the structure in which to build the Psalm first; then, make it musical.
When Minor Meets Major
As a worship leader, I’ll be the first to admit it is easy to write and select songs for worship based on popularity, tempo or even our own preferences. We often overlook the importance of planning
songs that first and foremost communicate Jesus as our only hope, both lyrically and musically.
This also applies to the songs that we write. We continue our “Psalm Song” series this week with a
look at assessing the character of a passage of Scripture and creating a similar accompaniment in an underlying composition.
Once form has been established, I read (and reread and reread) the Psalm to try to discern the feel
or mood of the text. For example, Psalm 8 is celebratory and declares the majesty of God in all of
creation. Therefore, my natural inclination would be to write the Psalm in a major (happy) key and
at a faster tempo. Psalm 51, on the other hand, focuses on David’s realization of his great sin and
repentance before the Lord. Shame and guilt meet grace and forgiveness. In my opinion, the
musical translation here is to begin in a minor key and transition to a major lift upon arrival of the
Spirit’s transforming work in David’s heart (“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit…” Psalm 51:12).
The Gospel is beautiful only because it is offensive. Jesus isn’t only a casual friend who helps us
through challenging life events. Nor is he a cheerleader on the sidelines coaxing us to move forward. He is our Savior, who has rescued us from the jaws of hell and adopted us as sons and daughters in the Kingdom of God. He is our great High Priest who continually intercedes to the Father on our behalf. He is Love itself, never faltering, never wavering, always constant and faithful to sanctify us until we’re brought home to glory. Our great sin that separates us from the presence and love of God is only forgiven through faith in Christ’s perfect and finished work on the cross. Charles Spurgeon eloquently states “If your sin is small, your Savior will be small also. But if your sin is great than your Savior must be great also.” Hopelessness meets hope, brokenness is restored and dead is made alive only in Christ. Both must be present to effectively and clearly communicate the Gospel.
In music, minor tonality meeting the contrasting major illustrates both the soul’s admission of its
broken condition and the joyful celebration of restoration in Christ. Worship leaders, may we seek
to effectively portray our great sin and therefore our great Savior in the texts and music we choose
and the (Psalm) songs we write for congregational worship.
Unpacking the Musical Suitcase
One of my most favorite activities is going on vacation. Ironically, one of my least favorite activities is packing a suitcase. No matter how large the case, there are always things that I inevitably leave out that have to be crumpled, crammed and shoved in order to fit. Writing a Psalm into a song can feel quite the same way without a careful system of organization and symmetry. For our final article on “Writing Psalm Songs,” we look at mastering finesse.
First, let’s take a step back and think about the initial topic in this series, “form.” Most modern
music today is written with symmetry in mind, and as listeners our ears are tuned to expect it. In
Psalms, although meter and rhyme are altogether absent, the melodic form can stay in tact and
accomplish a symmetry that is easy to follow. Below is the first verse in our song of Psalm 8.
(A) You have set your glory above the heavens.
(B) Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
(A) You have established strength because of your foes,
(B) To still the enemy and the avenger
Notice that there are two melodic lines, A & B. The first and third lines have a similar melody (A)
that differentiates them from the second and fourth lines (B). Because each half of the verse begins
with (A) and ends with (B), a musical conclusion is reached. The section is wrapped up neatly with a bow and feels complete. Once the overarching form is established, create a consistent melody that
is repetitive and easy to follow.
Having trouble creating a melody? Here are a few things to consider.
1. Grab your phone/recording device and start recording ideas – lots of them. Usually, the most
worthy melody rises to the top fairly quickly.
2. Always listen to music with a critical ear. Make observations about the things you like and don’t
like. This will help to give you ideas when writing your own.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Sometimes, one note/rhythm change or altering the tone in which
a phrase is sung can make all the difference in a memorable melody.
Once form is constructed, feel is established and finesse is in place, a Psalm Song can really start to
take shape. Your musical “suitcase” is neatly packed and ready for the open road!
For more information, please visit cornerroommusic.com