The Steve Jobs 3-Step Guide To Writing Worship Songs

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

iPod Point Of View photo by Danny Chu, used via Creative Commons licenseThe biography Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson not only tells the story of the brilliant, flawed founder and former CEO of Apple, it provides a treasure chest of principles for leaders and creatives of all stripes. Three of Jobs’ key principles jumped out at me early in the book and never let go. These principles gave us the Macintosh, the iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iPad, Pixar films and other digital wonders. They are also principles that can lift your songwriting to a higher level.

Mike Markkula, the first big Apple investor and chairman, was a father figure to Jobs. When Markula wrote his three principles in a one-page paper titled “The Apple Marketing Philosophy,” Jobs knew they shared a common vision. Jobs evaluated every potential Apple product with these principles, just as you should evaluate your worship songs (after ensuring, of course, that your worship songs are theologically accurate):

Image of a fish-headed alien wearing a button-down dress shirt

If people in your church are this foreign to you, you may not be able to write good songs for them

Step One: Empathize

Empathy: an intimate connection with the feelings of another (in Jobs’ case, customers). Apple developed and maintained their devoted following because they understood the needs of people better than any other computer company. Apple excels at making intuitive products that work, that integrate well with their other products, and that non-tech people can understand. They don’t use more buttons, more wires, more stuff than needed because they feel the pain of non-tech folk like me, who get lost when trying to sift through complicated user manuals.

Worship songwriter takeway: Think like a pastor, a shepherd. What do the people in your circle need to hear? What do they need to sing? Listen to them, pray for them, think about them when you’re crafting songs.

When Kristen and I wrote My Song In The Night, which you can download for free in the column to your right, we wanted to write for Christians who believe the joy of the Lord is their strength, but they still feel pain and heartache. Plenty of hymns and praise songs espouse the “And now I am happy all the day” philosophy — that once you’re saved you have “never a care, for Jesus is there.”

Even a cursory reading of scripture proves the fallacy. We are promised more trouble in this life if we follow Christ. Kristen and I wanted a song that acknowledges we live in “the night,” prior to Christ’s return, that afflictions are real and life is full of struggle. And then we wanted to point to Jesus, the one who understands our pain, who “gave up his rights” and suffered in our stead. The song says we can have present comfort when we see what Christ has done in the past, and how that victory has achieved for us a future beyond our dreams.

I don’t know the people in your circle like you do. Pray for the Spirit’s help in empathizing with them and giving them songs that will strengthen, comfort or challenge as needed.

Apple iPod ad taken at street corner in Dallas

A simple idea, a simple machine that carries out that idea

Step Two: Focus:

Jobs and Markulla strove to eliminate extraneous opportunities. This was true for potential sub-brands and product lines as well as individual products. Take the iPod: earlier mp3 players tried to cram too much into those tiny bodies. They were confusing and they didn’t hold that many songs. Steve Jobs mandated a device that would hold bukus of songs, without cumbersome features like “playlist creation.” That kind of thing is better done on a bigger computer. Then you just sync your little iPod to the computer to transfer the playlist.

Worship Songwriter Takeway: Do you have too much going on in your song? It isn’t just a matter of length (remember, the iPod actually held more songs than earlier mp3 players). It’s about focus. Townend and Getty’s “In Christ Alone” is a long, sweeping epic but the plot never meanders. On the other hand, I’ve heard praise songs that consisted of only one verse and chorus but can’t maintain focus.

What is your song about? Is your theme coherent? Do you know what your theme is?

Look at each component of your song. It’s easy to start out fine on, say, a verse and chorus, but then write a second verse that might be brilliant in its own right but either doesn’t have much to do with what has gone before, or simply restates what has gone before. Get in the habit of checking for things like this. What can you strip away, so that what’s left is tight and shiny?

Photo of the Apple Store in West Nyack, New York

Visit an Apple Store to see how good presentation enhances a good product.

Step Three: Impute:

Steve Jobs knew that the public forms opinions about companies and products based on the branding signals they create (in packaging, advertising, design and other things that some CEOs deem “marketing gimmicks”). Jobs’ mentor Markulla wrote:

People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc., if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.

Worship Songwriter Takeaway: You can write the best lyrics in the world but if the melody is bad, your song will fall flat. And unfortunately, you can write mediocre lyrics with a killer melody, and have a hit. It drives me nuts but it’s true. Pack your lyrics with value, but impute that value with a good melody, good instrumentation, good vocals.

Good Melody: In the context of music for congregational worship, this doesn’t just mean a catchy melody. It means a singable melody. Can normal people sing your song, and will they want to sing it? Singable and catchy.

Good Instrumentation: Poor players detract from the message of the song. You know this, right? Don’t kid yourself in thinking that quality musicianship doesn’t matter “if it’s for the Lord.”

Good vocals: I don’t know what you think of some of my modern hymns that I co-wrote with Kristen and friends like Brooks Ritter, Rebecca Elliott and Dave Moisan, but I guarantee you’d think less of them if the recordings featured my own vocals instead of Kristen, Brooks Ritter, Rebecca Elliott and Dave Moisan. Just saying.

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