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So You Want to Compose a Worship Song . . .

A Practical Guide for All Ages

A Successful Experiment

This past Lenten season the worship committee of my church encouraged congregational members to write musical compositions that reflected the Lectionary Psalms and then share them during the Sunday worship services in Lent. We were blessed to hear a piano composition, a chorus written for the congregation by an older member of our church, a vocal interpretation of a Psalm, and an unaccompanied cello composition written by a 6th grade member of our congregation. I was incredibly blessed by the musical gifts of our congregation and have been reflecting on how we could encourage more members of all ages to create original compositions for worship.

As a music educator I was reminded how challenging it is to compose music and how often we fail to give the members of our congregation, and especially children, the tools needed to encourage a creative process that results in a composition that is both meaningful to the congregation, and having the quality to stand the test of time. Even in my classroom I find that creating and composing is the most challenging of the music standards to do well. Removing roadblocks for composing is important for all members of the congregation, but especially children.

Removing Roadblocks to Encourage Composition

E. Paul Torrence is a researcher who developed the following list of creative thinking levels that are useful when encouraging composing or improvising:

  • Fluent — 1st level — Letting the ideas flow
  • Flexible — 2nd level — Changing ideas, bending ideas
  • Original — 3rd level — Creating new ideas
  • Elaborative — 4th level — Refining the ideas, trying different approaches
  • Evaluative — 5th level — Asking “what is excellent” and “what could be improved”; evaluating the work

Using this framework I am suggesting some practical strategies that can be used in encouraging composing and improvisation with congregational members, with the goal of guiding them through the process to the highest levels of creative thinking.

  1. Identify the motivation for the composition; reflection on a Psalm or poem, a composition that reflects a particular mood or emotion, a part of a cycle or series of compositions i.e. the days of creation or the church year; or a composition that has a particular function in the liturgy.

  1. Provide structure and boundaries for the composition. This may be using structures such as theme and variation, ABA form, call/response or adding an introduction or coda.

  1. Consider beginning with a group composition; either having certain students assigned to parts of the composition or collaborating throughout the composition. A group composition could be a wonderful intergenerational activity.

  1. Provide a mentor to help guide the composer, or better yet, help by providing an experienced composer who could demonstrate the creative process.

  1. For those trying their hand at composing for the first time, using the pentatonic scale or a repeated ostinato pattern can help simplify and unify the composition.

  1. Realizing that 80% of the world’s music is not written down, not every composition needs to be notated. Children in particular may need help with notating their compositions.

  1. Consider using technology to help with the creative process. Garage Band and recording programs like Audacity can simplify the process and provide easy ways to experiment with different sounds and patterns.

  1. Provide a process for compositions to be evaluated and changes suggested by assigning a musician to partner with the composer for valuable feedback and help with revisions.

  1. Throughout the process help the composers reach the 4th and 5th levels of creative thinking by asking leading questions such as: What instrumentation would work best with this composition? Is the melody singable for a congregation? How could the dynamics and tempo be adjusted for the composition to communicate more effectively?

  1. Finally, find ways to celebrate the work of your congregational members. Consider collecting the compositions and then distributing them to the congregation either electronically or by self-publishing a collection of creative works by the congregation that could include songs, poetry, and artwork.

Our Lenten experiment reminded me of the power of music and how as image bearers we reflect our creative God, who loves beauty and has given us music to express the inexpressible. A quote from the book I am currently reading, Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson sums up the importance of music in our lives and in worship this way,

It is a story. . . . of how music itself is a code, how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy; how it allows us to whisper between the prison bars when we cannot speak aloud; how it can still comfort the suffering , say, “Whatever has befallen you—you are not alone.”