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Replicating Greatness

Replicating Greatness

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In this article we answer the following question our tribe has: 

“I’m very passionate about creating music for my church, both writing and recording, but I feel like nothing I’m coming up with sounds like or sings like the “well-known” artists and writers we also do on Sunday morning. Any suggestions?”

Brian Steckler answers this question here:

Comparing ourselves to other artists is tricky business. They’re at the top of the CCLI charts for lots of reasons, the biggest one being that their songs are really good! But, keep in mind that even those guys don’t write and record a perfect worship song every time. Sure, it would be great to produce a full CD of material that the entire country will be singing for the next decade, but in actuality, if even one or two songs catch on, it’s a good CD, right?

That said, using those songs and recordings as a benchmark to aim for with our own work is worth doing, as long as you don’t get frustrated when the first few songs you write don’t go worldwide. Look at an old hymnal. Most likely, the hymns that made it to print are the “good” songs, and how many of those do we still use?

First Things First

I know I’m the “digital tools” guy, but before you’re ready to record, to have your own material match up a little better with the songs that work so well with your congregation you need a good song. Don’t jump ahead and start making some phat beats for your new tune that doesn’t even have a chorus yet. You need the song to tell you what the arrangement and production should sound like. Write the song first.

This is an old idea, but is worth a repeat for those that haven’t written a lot of songs yet. Choose a worship song that is popular with your congregation. Write a new set of lyrics that match the original, syllable for syllable. Don’t use the same words, or for that matter, the same subject. Make the words’ accents land the same way. Don’t add syllables to squish your idea into the same number of beats. No cheating! This is going to be a struggle, but you’ll soon realize how few words are in most worship songs, how significant each word is, and how important it is that the words flow like a conversation you’re having with a friend. This is going to take work. The same kind of work you should use on your own songs’ lyrics.

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Melodic Steps

Once you’ve written a new lyric, move to the melody and chords. Keep the original melody’s rhythm, but change the notes and chords. But, don’t stray too far. The chords should change in the same places, just pick different ones. You’ll find that there aren’t very many choices. If the original goes “G D Em C,” try “G C Em D.” And for the melody, take note (pun intended) of where the original moves by steps, and when it moves by bigger intervals, and see if you can keep a similar shape.

Now to the “digital” bit: to facilitate this exercise, import that original song into your DAW. Set the tempo grid to exactly match the song, so it’s easy to start on the sections you’re working on. When you’re working on the lyric, it might be easier to play guitar along with the original, plunk out the melody on a keyboard sound, and mute the original, so you can hear the phrase without the original words. Then when you get to changing up the music, mute the original, but keep the tempo and arrangement the same. Where the original has a verse to chorus, your song should have a verse to chorus. It might help to put in a simple drum loop that has the same kick and snare pattern as the original song. Again, don’t get crazy on your “production,” so far it’s all about the song. 

Don’t worry that your “new” song doesn’t feel all that original to you because it’s so meticulously modeled after another song. Chances are, your congregation won’t notice. This detailed study develops your fluency in the lyrical and musical language of worship music. The next time you set out to write a song on your own, you’ll remember what made our example song work so well and you’ll gravitate toward ideas that fit that approach.

Step-By-Step Song Re-Writing

  1. Write a new set of lyrics that match a top song syllable for syllable.

    • Make the words’ accents land exactly as in the original
  1. Keep the original melody’s rhythm, but change the notes and chords

    • Change chords in the same places
  1. Import the song you are imitating into your DAW and set the tempo grid to match the song exactly

    • Work on the lyric, by playing guitar/ keys along with the original
    • Work on the music by muting the original, keeping the tempo and arrangement
    • Put in a simple drum loop that has the same kick and snare pattern as the original
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