Singing or Selecting Songs: Lyrics

This is partially coming from the paper I mention in the About page.  What is it we should be thinking about when we read through the lyrics of a song and are attempting to determine its suitability, or even when trying to find a song for a given service?  What is it we should think about when we are singing a song?   The answers to those two questions will likely be very similar, though the latter will probably be less detailed than the former.

Textual Accuracy

This is something we need to pay close attention to when reviewing or selecting a song.  It’s perhaps the easiest to check when carefully reading through lyrics.

  • Is the theology/doctrine correct?
  • Are any biblical references made used correctly, not out of context, etc.?
  • Are all names given to God biblical or at least an extension of something biblical?

Lyrical Style

There are a variety of styles of lyrics.  Some are very poetic while others are fairly simply and straightforwardly written.  Some styles are very formal, some are more informal.  Being aware of the style and how well it will be understood by the congregation is important.

  • Poetic – is the song heavily poetic?  If so, does the poetry make sense and help, or is it actually a hindrance or cause ambiguity?  Does the poetry use symbolism that isn’t appropriate?
  • Textual mood – is the song declarative or is it more thoughtful or meditative?
  • Formality – is the text written in a formal or informal writing style?  Does it use slang?  Does it use older English or modern English?  Does it use words that are no longer common?
  • Thought provoking – does the song cause one to think?

Lyrical Perspective

I’m using the term perspective here to mean how the song talks about God or us.

  • Objective – is it mostly declaring objective truths or facts?  For example, Immortal, Invisible is primarily coming from an objective perspective.
  • Subjective – is it stating things from a more personal, subjective perspective?  For example, a song that refers to Christ being worthy to be praised because He saved us, or one that says something along the lines of God has always been faithful to me … those are true, but they come from a more subjective reasoning or perspective.
  • Reflective – is it more of an introspection or meditation on a topic?  For example, a song such as O Wondrous Love is more reflective as it sings about the wondrous love God has shown in a meditative way.
  • Responsive – is the song primarily one of response to something?  For example, the first verse in most hymnals for O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing is a responsive verse; it’s a response to the greatness of our Redeemer.  Another one might be something like Jesus, Thank You which is a response of gratitude to Christ for our salvation.
  • Subject – who or what is the song talking about?  Who or what is the song talking to?  Yes, I put “what” in there because some songs more or less commonly sung are not actually singing to a person, such as O Thou Joyful, O Thou Wonderful, the lyrics of which are actually “talking to” Christmastide, not God.

Other Considerations

Just a listing of some other considerations that aren’t big enough for their own headings :)

  • Complexity – are the lyrics complexly written or are they simple?  Are the sentences long or relatively short?  Is it easy to understand with one reading or do you have to sit and think about it for a bit to figure out what it’s conveying?
  • Progression – does the song progress in talking about a topic or is it relatively stationary?  An example of one that progresses would be something like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, which starts with seeing the cross, moves through a commitment to turning from sin and pride, and ends with awe and thankfulness.  A more stationary song would be something like The Precious Blood.
  • Completeness – is the song relatively complete and robust in talking about a topic, or is it very focused?  A prime example would be Amazing Grace.  A good song, to be sure, yet it does not specifically sin or repentance and does not give a complete picture of the gospel.  This is not inherently bad, of course, and few songs cover a topic to near completeness but what songs don’t cover is something we should be aware of when picking (or singing) songs.

Common Misconceptions About Lyrical Quality

I have run across a few common misconceptions about lyrical quality in my reading online.  I’m sure most of them are well-meaning, but I feel they are not correct or perhaps simply counted on too heavily.  These are primarily issues because we tend to be less critical or less analytically when we review songs that we think are probably good based on these misconceptions.

  • Age – the test of time, which actually has its own blog post :)  – new or old – means little with regard to whether or not the lyrics are good.
  • Formality or poetry – simply being poetic or not, or being formal or informal, does not automatically mean the quality of the lyrics or “worth-it-ness” of the song are good or bad.  Perhaps formality is an issue in your particular congregation, and that is something for your own discernment… however, formality is not a good indicator of whether or not the song is good or not.
  • Counting the number of first-person pronouns is not an accurate way of determining who the song centers on.  Many Psalms are all about God’s amazing work in the Psalmist’s life, but are all spoken of from a first-person perspective and have a lot of “me” and “I” and “mine.”
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