The Art of Song Selection

(Please note, that this is coming from my background in the context of a Vineyard Church, the details may differ from church to church, though the principles can be applied to any number of contexts..)

We’ve all been there, listening to comments such as: “That was a great worship set this morning”; “I really didn’t connect with this morning’s set”; “I liked most of it, but found a couple of them really hard going”; “What was that third song again?”. Quite often, what causes these comments is one of three factors: song selection; arrangement of songs/confidence of musicians; or the general feel of the set. Today we’re going to look at song selection, and find out what we can do to make congregational worship times more accessible.

When choosing songs, it is important to consider three attributes: pitch/melody; rhythm/feel; and the message of the song. Songs must be easy to sing; most congregations will contain a fair number of people for whom this is the only environment (with the possible exception of the shower) in which they will sing at all, let alone in public. Songs must therefore be melodically accessible, in range, in pitch, and in lyrical content.

I hear many comments from fellow worship musicians who cannot understand where to pitch songs. My first piece of advice is: make sure you, the vocalist, are comfortable with the pitching of the song! If it goes too low, or too high for your vocal range, then leading it is going to be somewhat difficult. If we are making songs accessible, then it must also be possible for songs to be sung by both male and female members of the congregation. I tend to test this by pitching the song in a comfortable key for my voice, then ask my wife, who can hold a tune but would almost certainly never grace a stage, to see if it’s comfortable for her. If we can both sing a song in the same key, then it goes in, if not, we have a rethink. By the way, if you want a stunning example of what can be achieved with five notes of melody, listen carefully to Tim Hughes’ “Here I Am To Worship”. The entire song has a range of just five notes—making it a very simple and accessible song for any congregation.

How many times have you sung a song and thought “the words for this song don’t fit the rhythm of the music…”. For me, once is too many times! Most congregations, when arriving for a time of corporate worship, will be looking for a few songs in which they can freely express their praise and adoration for the Lord. If we can use songs that roll off the tongue, contain space for expression, and have a predictable rhythm, then this freedom is all the easier to come by. Think of a song such as Matt Redman’sBlessed Be Your Name”, a song with the same chord sequence throughout and a melody line that fits the backing with precision. Simple, effective, and promoting a feel of freedom in praise: this should be what we are striving for.

The “message” of songs is quite a subjective topic to cover, although there are some basic rules you can apply to your sets in order to make them cohesive. There is a line in the song “King of Wonders” (from the CompassionArt album), in which they sing “You reveal and we respond.” This could apply to a worship set in which we ask the Lord to reveal himself through our times of worship, often with one or two praise songs to begin with, and then ask Him to give us revelations. The conclusion of the set can then be given over to “responding” to the revelations we have been given. In other words, we ask for the Lord’s blessing, we receive the Lord’s blessing, we then give the glory back to Him. Select songs that give your congregations the opportunity to do these things, and you give worship times the opportunity to become more intimate.

The final thing I will say regarding song selection is, take advice from others, especially your pastor and worship pastor. If they say a song has been done too much, it probably has, and it may be time for another. If they say a song isn’t conveying the right message, take the advice and work through it. Strong relationships with your leaders will give you a good basis for increasing intimacy with the Lord in your church’s worship times. I pray that this would be your goal, to increase intimacy with the Lord in your corporate times of worship, I pray the Lord blesses you in this.  

Ed is a passionate worshipper who has been serving on worship teams for over 13 years. Ed lives just east of London, England, with his wife Kelly and daughter Erin, where they serve at Rayleigh Vineyard church. Ed is a qualified guitar teacher, though is equally at home on bass and keys. Outside of the sphere of worship music, Ed is a self-confessed Beatlemaniac (with a Rickenbacker 360/12 on its way), keen social networker, and coffee drinker.