10 Traits the Top CCLI Songs Have in Common
I came across this great resource for songwriters recently as it was emailed to me from a friend at Brentwood-Benson.
10 Traits the Top CCLI Songs Have in Common
– Marty Nystrom
About Marty Nystrom:
Marty Nystrom is a songwriter, best known for As The Deer, which has been a mainstay for years in CCLI’s lists of Top 100 Worship Songs. In the CCLI Copy Report results from February 2008, As The Deer was listed at #41.
1. How Great Is Our God – Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Ed Cash
2. Blessed Be Your Name – Matt & Beth Redman
3. Here I Am To Worship – Tim Hughes
4. Open The Eyes Of My Heart – Paul Baloche
5. Shout To The Lord – Darlene Zschech
6. Holy Is The Lord – Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio
7. You Are My King – Billy Foote
8. Forever – Chris Tomlin
9. Lord I Lift Your Name On High – Rick Founds
10. Come Now Is The Time To Worship – Brian Doerksen
(CCLI US February 2008 Survey)
Christian Copyright Licensing Inc. releases a biannual list of the top 25 worship songs used by churches in America. This list is an indicator of those songs that have crossed denominational and worship style lines. As a songwriter I have studied this list closely through the years. Not only have I watched it for worship trends but also for song elements that have remained consistent regardless of changing musical styles. Here are ten traits that are important to the success of these classic worship songs.
1. Universal Theme
A successful lyric will be an existing sentiment in the hearts of worshipers from a broad audience. A song on the top of the CCLI list is there because its theme remains true to worshipers regardless of age, denomination or cultural background. Lyric phrases such as “How great is our God” and “Forever God is faithful” are relevant and honest expressions for all believers. A lyric should not require an in-depth Bible study before it can be appreciated.
2. Lyric Consistency
A strong song will have a theme that remains consistent through all of its sections. The lyrics in the verse will support or build on the topic stated in the chorus. A strong song will not wander from idea to idea. The second section of “Open the Eyes of My Heart” begins with “To see you high and lifted up.” This is an effective transition tying the sections together. The verses of “Blessed Be Your Name” bring more understanding to the message and encourages us to sing the chorus with even greater passion. A good question to ask, can the theme be stated in a word or short phrase?
Prosody in song writing refers to the perfect marriage of music and lyric. Not only should each compliment the other but will ideally bring out the best in its partner. When heard alone, does the music incite the same emotion or message that the lyric expresses? The pitch, rhythm, tension and energy in the melody married to the lyric “Shout to the Lord all the earth…” is an example of effective prosody.
4. Lyric Originality
The lyricist of a classic song finds a fresh way to express an old thought. Lyrics like “You stepped down into darkness” and “He wraps Himself in light” paint a picture in the mind’s eyes making the message memorable without being overly poetic. A lasting song will include words, phrases, and rhyme pairs that have not been overused and that cause a lyric to be predictable and trite. A good lyricist will seek out scriptural truths and make them accessible to the worshiper.
Right-brained creative types love to break the mold and free themselves from the restraints of musical structure. Before abandoning traditional song forms writers should remember that their audience is made up mostly of “left-brainers.” Their minds will be seeking a clear picture of how a song is ordered. They will not be satisfied if it leaves them feeling unsettled or disjointed. All of the CCLI examples contain solid song forms and are built with sections that are so distinctive that there is no question where the verse ends and the chorus begins.
6. Musical Interest
Songs included on the top of CCLI’s list are often included on instrumental recordings based on the merit of their musical interest. A great song will have a melody that is easily recognizable apart from its harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment. It will have musical integrity enough to be appreciated by musicians of all levels and will introduce new musical ideas with each section.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for the writer of praise and worship music is to find the balance between originality and usability. How do we introduce new musical ideas while keeping the song playable and singable for the local church? “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” has been high on CCLI’s list for many years. Apart from being an inherently strong song, it has lasted because its chordal simplicity makes it approachable for any church band.
8. A Well Placed Title
Ideally a song should never leave a listener wondering what the title is. The title should be unique, repeated appropriately and set in strong places within the song. “Here I Am to Worship” and “Come Now is the Time to Worship” place the title as the opening line of the chorus. “How Great is Our God,” “Blessed Be Your Name” and You Are My King make use of repetition. “Forever” and “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” end the chorus with their titles.
9. Balance of Repetition and New Ideas
Life is made up of the familiar and the new. Human beings love both as long as they are kept in balance. The same is true in song writing. Too much of a good thing can make a song boring. An overabundance of new ideas can cause a song to ramble. Songwriters repeat words, phrases, melodic motifs, and chord progressions to bring a sense of coherence to their song ideas. It’s not hard to find examples of these techniques in all of these top CCLI songs.
10. Effectiveness in Worship
I’ve saved the most important for last. The primary reason these songs are so beloved by Christians world-wide is simply because they are effective in helping worshipers exalt Jesus. Rather than drawing attention to themselves as musical works, these songs have been proven to incite worship in the hearts of people around the globe. This above all is what determines which songs will span generations.