How to Write Melodies for the Congregation
Good congregational songs have to be simple enough for everyone to sing, but interesting enough to be sung again and again. The simplicity element of congregational songwriting requires some basic observations. Typically the range of the melody can’t be more than a tone or so larger than an octave. Other- wise only brilliant vocalists will be able to sing it—not the goal here.The intervals or gaps between notes can’t be too big either for the same reason. If I use non diatonic chords in the song—chords borrowed from another key—I will try to keep the melody line centered in one key only. Also, the rhythm of the melody line can’t be too involved. It’s got to be hum-able. Of course these parameters might change as church and popular culture changes. But basically, these are some guardrails for congregational melody writing. Venture outside of them at your own peril.
Okay, so we know roughly how to keep a melody simple. But it’s got to be simple and interesting. Simple and bad is easy. Simple and good is very, very difficult. This is where it gets a little hard to pin down, but here are a couple suggestions.
Open Your Ears
Firstly, I’m constantly listening out for melodies on the radio, on tv, on singles, on records, in movies. Whenever I hear a melody that sounds interesting I spend a bit of time on an instrument trying to work out what’s going on there.
Go A Cappella
Lately I’ve been writing without an instrument. I’ve done this intentionally as I’ve observed that often the songs that are easiest to sing and most loved by the Church can generally be sung without an instrument. I also find that if a guitar is in my hands my fingers will go to their favorite and familiar places. It’s hard to write a new song when this happens. So if I have a lyric that I think needs to be sung, I’ll try and find the melody without an instrument. If the melody works without an instrument, it will often sound even better with accompaniment. But be careful. You could end up writing a country tune without realizing it.