Sojourn Songwriting Seminar Lecture Notes

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Today I had the privilege of leading a songwriting seminar at the Midtown campus of our church, Sojourn. During the second half of the seminar I moderated a panel of Sojourn Music songwriters in a free-form discussion and Q&A, which was not recorded. So basically this is a chance for me to say, “You had to be there.”

But here is my lecture outline for the first 30 minutes of the seminar:

Songwriting is both science and art. Science comes from knowing the “rules,” and what basically works/doesn’t work. Art comes from knowing when to break the rules.

Why your song might not make it into Sojourn’s next recording project:

  • Not ready. And sometimes we’re the worst judges of our own work. This is one reason to seek outside opinions before submitting your song(s).
  • It’s good, but it doesn’t fit well with the other good songs that have been selected (tempo, style, etc.) It’s not just about finding the best songs, it’s about finding the songs that work best together.
  • If it is a revised hymn, perhaps another version of the same hymn is a better fit.

The right perspective for a songwriter to have, when thinking about success:

  • Songwriters are not called to write songs that are recorded, or that sell a certain amount, or that are well-reviewed online.
  • Songwriters are called to worship and be faithful in our writing, as in all areas of life.
  • Write the best songs that you can, and leave the results to God
  • $1 billion plus a stale chip analogy — if you’re a Christian, you get to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus. This is a greater reward than having a CCLI hit, or a Dove award, or any kind of earthly success. But suppose you think, “Yeah, but Chris Tomlin gets heaven with Jesus, PLUS all the fame and fortune here below.” Think of it this way. The greatest trophies here below, compared to heaven, would be like comparing a stale chip to $1 billion. If you were given $1 billion, would you feel depressed because someone else was given $1 billion plus a stale chip?

Should you alter the words of a hymn? Here, I presented a “hymn revision” paperwhich looks at the first verse of the Isaac Watts “Hymn 95,” which Neil Degraide, Dave Moisan and I rewrote as Sojourn’s “We Are Changed” on the Over The Grave record. Download the paper at the link above, to see a side-by-side comparison of the verses. Here are my notes on the words I revised, line-by-line:

Line 1: Changed “all the outward forms” to “any government.” I thought people might get tripped up by the archaic “outward forms.” And because we live in a democratic republic, and have a propensity to think that we can achieve the good life if we simply elect the right man to the White House or the right party to congress, I saw this as an opportunity to make a statement that is important in our place and time.

Line 2: Changed “Nor rites” to “No law,” because “rites” is archaic and because it doesn’t sing as well as “law.” Also, “law” is a near-rhyme with “God.”

Line 3: Changed each instance of “nor” to “no,” simply because I think the change is a bit more singable and more contemporary.

Lines 4 and 5: No change

Line 6: Changed “creates us heirs of grace” to “declares the heirs of grace” because “creates us heirs” is a little harder to sing. Also, “declares” rhymes with “heirs,” so it gives the line a nice internal rhyme.

Line 7: No change

Line 8: Changed “new, peculiar” to “chosen, holy.” It’s more pleasant to sing and repeat the long O than the U sound, and also the word “peculiar” sometimes has a pejorative connotation these days. Finally, I think “chosen” and “holy” are more uniquely descriptive of the church. “Peculiar” in what way? Because we’re holy, in Christ.

Finally, I talked about how to put together a listening party of “regular worshipers” for your song drafts. I used this article from my wife Kristen, and I shared Kristen’s song feedback form that you can download at the link.

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