Songwriting Workshop: Who Are We Singing To, Anyway?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

God loves it when we sing to Him, and He loves it when we sing about Him, to each other. But while God always knows the intent of our hearts, our congregations don’t. If we give them a song that illogically switches the object/audience around (the person to whom we’re singing), we will make it harder for them to enter into worship.

If your song is about God, to the congregation, then make that clear throughout the song. Don’t switch from

  • “His love is strong” to
  • “You own the cattle on a thousand hills,”

or they will think you’re saying they own the cattle on a thousand hills. Which might be true if you’re singing to Wyoming ranchers, but not many other folk.

Your song can have more than one audience, but you must make the switch obvious. For instance, your verses can say, “Let’s sing to the Lord,” and then your chorus says, “We sing to you Lord, we love you.

Can you think of a song that switches audiences, in a way that isn’t confusing? Why does it work, even with the switch?


LaughingTulkas September 11, 2013 at 9:14 am

“Bless the Lord, oh my soul, oh my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, oh my soul. I will worship Your holy name.”

If what you say is true, everyone should be confused as to why I am worshiping my soul’s holy name, as the whole chorus is directed at commanding my soul to worship the Lord, and it is never made clear that I am switching the audience in the last line. Needless to say, I think people are smarter about this than you give them credit for. (Also, I think the more relevant problem with the example you posted would be just singing about God owning cattle, not a very culturally relevant phrase, rather than knowing who it is addressed to.)

Bobby Gilles September 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

Yes, there are exceptions, which is why I asked for them at the end of the post. And you’re right, Redman’s 10,000 Reasons is a great one. Addressing one’s soul and then addressing the Lord goes back to the psalms, and to hymn writers like Isaac Watts and Anne Steele. These are all great writers, who know how to pull it off in a way that isn’t confusing.

Redman accomplishes it in a simple way: the verses are all directed to God, and the chorus begins with a direction to his own soul – to himself. The chorus then ends with a return to the outward focus, “I’ll worship Your holy name.”

So, the majority of the song is sung to the Lord. When he switches the primary audience to his own soul, he makes it as obvious as possible, with the “bless the Lord, o my soul” hook line.

I’ve never used the “cattle on a thousand hills” Psalm 50 reference in a song, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate. Third Day did a good job with the imagery in “These Thousand Hills.”

LaughingTulkas September 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm

My intent was not to say that you can’t use cattle or sheep or any other reference in a song, just that I think confusion is more likely with that line (why are we singing that God is a rancher from Texas?) than with changing the audience (Is he saying I am a rancher from Texas?). I’m not saying either one is so great a confusion that it can’t be done.

Basically I think that people don’t really have a problem with shifting audiences. Do you have examples of songs where you think it is confusing?

Bobby Gilles September 12, 2013 at 4:27 pm

Okay, I see your intent there.

The audience switch thing a problem with some beginning songwriters. I’ve seen it a lot in rough drafts of songs that beginning (or inexperienced) writers show me. It’s part of a host of issues that often make the first drafts confusing.

So, I don’t think that this is a problem with, say, the professional worship music industry. Beginning writers frequent this blog post, so, with a few exceptions, the songwriting posts are more like “how to” frameworks for them rather than critiques of professionally written songs.

Thanks for your input!

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