Tips for writing a successful hymn

This article once existed on BBC’s servers, in their Religion & Ethics section. I found it through a Wikipedia link. It has since disappeared, but the Google Cache was still intact (thankfully). I’m saving it from eternal damnation, so enjoy this lost Internet gem!

Tips for writing a successful hymn
Stuart Townend

There are probably more hymns and worship songs being written today than in any period of church history. But relatively few will stand the test of time. And that has always been the case: for every “Amazing grace” or “And can it be”, you can bet there are several hundred trite, interminably dull ditties that did the rounds at the time, but have now thankfully faded into blissful obscurity.

So how can we make sure what we write is worth singing for years to come? Here are a few ideas that I try to put into practice myself:

  • Study the Scriptures. The best hymns demonstrate insight and understanding of the Bible, and consequently bring the truths of the Christian faith to life. If you don’t know the message of the gospel, you can’t write something that will enable others to worship in spirit and truth.
  • Be poetic, not pompous. Sometimes when people set out to write a hymn, they use phrases which might sound ‘hymny’, but actually mean very little. Make your phrases mean something!
  • Combine objective truth and subjective response. When a hymn is just a statement of theological truth, it may be accurate, but it can be dry. Equally, when a hymn is just about how we feel, it’s wishy washy. The best hymns powerfully express the emotions of the worshipper, but as an emotional response to the objective truth of the gospel.
  • Look for musical dynamics. A hymn should have musical peaks and troughs, and there should be a sense of building to a climax where the melody soars while expressing the main theme of the hymn.
  • Make every line count. I see hymns that contain a few good ideas, but some of the lines are clearly there as just ‘filler’, and let the whole thing down. Don’t just stick in a line because it rhymes, or because you couldn’t think of anything else to say.
  • Prune it mercilessly. Once you think you’ve finished, go through it carefully, and get rid of anything that distracts from the main theme you’re expressing. Better to have two compact, punchy verses than four rambling, unfocused ones.

So get writing!

Copyright © 2004 Stuart Townend.

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Philip Cain

Ninja Master of the Series of Tubes, musician, audio engineer and geek. More about Philip...

2 thoughts on “Tips for writing a successful hymn”

  1. Those are all sound tips, Phil. Thanks for archiving it for us.

  2. I am a South African song and hymnwriter struggling to make my hymns known, and get them published. But more than that, I am passionate to influence current ‘praise and worship’ singing trends to a more biblical lyrical content, and to more singable melodies.

    I’m an admirer of Stuart Townend. I read his ‘Tips for writing a successful hymn’, and fully agree. These tips embody my own philosophy of hymn/song writing. God has given me insights into His mind regarding what He wants ‘congregational singing’ to accomplish: He wants us to keep two dimensions in focus: The Vertical (Praise & Worship) and the Horizontal (Singing the Word to each other). Most contemporary singing is in the first dimenasion. The second is hardly noticed by most current songwriters. Yet this is the dimension commanded by God: Deut 31:19-22 (the lyrics are in ch 32), Eph 5:18-22 and Col 3:16. I’m on a mission to steer the singing in lour churches into a balanced blend of both dimensions. I offer a free email Conversation titled DEEP & WIDE (write me at wetmore@pixie.co.za). I want to DEEPen the lyrical content of the songs we sing and WIDEn the range of themes they address, so that our singing, like our preaching, encompasses the whole counsel of God.

    Stuart Townend is one of the few contemporary writers who exemplifies what I long for in the Contemporary Worship Song movement. Stuart – can I interact further with you on this?

    Philip and Jenny, you seem to share my passion. Can we interact?

    I welcome consultation with any who share my enthusiastic longing. Thanks, Hugh G Wetmore wetmore@pixie.co.za

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