Learning Hymnwriting from Modern Hymnwriters

When today’s leading modern hymnwriters are interviewed on radio or podcasts, the conversation often turns to their techniques and how and why they wrote their greatest songs. Here are some of their most useful podcast interviews.

Stuart Townend

(How Deep the Father’s Love For Us, In Christ Alone, The Power of The Cross)

Poetry and Hymn Writing: Crafting Timeless Lyrics (premium): The rest of this post will feature free resources, but this deserves to be the one exception. Though only available to Sing! Global website subscribers, it’s worth the cost of website access. Stuart explains in rich detail the techniques he uses to write timeless lyrics.

Worship and the Psalms: Stuart discusses his attempts to write timeless lyrics and redress an imbalance of praise songs that had been too focused on our emotional response to God. Stuart doesn’t want there to be an imbalance between content/doctrine and emotion; the great hymns do both.

The Worship Podcast Episode 73: Stuart discusses the writing process for “In Christ Alone,” and names a song that he thinks ought to be given another chance (David Fellingham’s “Jesus, You Are The Radiance.”)

The Word: Stuart talks about the writing and impact of “In Christ Alone,” “Psalm 23,” “Creation Sings the Father’s Song,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love,” his upbringing, faith in a time of grief, and the attitude of love Christians should bring to current cultural debates.

Resound Worship Podcast, Episode 8: Stuart discusses his start in music and in songwriting, how he decides what topics to write about, the value of a co-writer, his co-writing relationship with Keith Getty, and the merits of including styles other than U2’s in corporate worship.

Modern Hymns: Christian Congregational Songs for the 21st Century: Keith Getty and Stuart Townend share their testimonies and their path to songwriting. Stuart shares the importance of songs with objective theological truth and the value of narrative songs. Keith and Stuart discuss their musical and literary influences. They also sing “In Christ Alone” and “The Power of the Cross.” They discuss how the differences in their views and temperaments helped strengthen “Speak, O Lord.”

Hymns, worship, and Christian thought, part 1 (Keith Getty and Stuart Townend): Keith and Stuart talk about their background in writing and sing and discuss specific songs. “See, What a Morning” is a narrative song focusing on the Resurrection. Keith mentioned that unbelievers won’t be drawn in by small words and avoidance of theological words, but they may be drawn in by a story. “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” was Stuart Townend’s first effort at modern hymns, and was also the song that inspired Keith that his faith could be integrated with his musical efforts. Theological debates over several of the lines in that song come up. Keith mentioned that while one can debate syntax of a particular line, a more important conversation is the areas of theology that aren’t being covered in congregational music. Then they sang and discussed “O Church Arise.”

Steve & Vikki Cook

Before the Throne of God Above

WorshipGod 2011: Before and After: The Evolution of a Song: Great songs almost never start out great. For a song to be great, it usually has to be re-written into greatness. Mark Altrogge leads a discussion about how to re-write and improve songs, with comments from Steve & Vikki.

WorshipGod 2011: Practicing and Planning Creativity: Steve & Vikki and Mark Altrogge discuss how to read and listen to a broad variety of things to increase your creativity.

WorshipGod 2013 East: What Makes these Songs Great? Steve & Vikki discuss characteristics of what makes a great worship song; Songs should be skillfully written (rhyme, meter, metaphors), have solid Biblical content, accessible enough that the average person can easily learn it, creative within these parameters, and universal enough that most people in a congregation can sing it. Then they analyze three songs: “Open the Eyes of My Heart,” “10,000 Reasons,” and “How Great Thou Art.”

WorshipGod 2013 East: Editing Your Song: Steve & Vikki discuss the importance of editing and how to edit and improve lyrics, melodies, and chords.

WorshipGod 2015: Overcoming Songwriter’s Block: Steve & Vikki share ideas about ways to get organized and brainstorm a wealth of ideas to avoid dead-ends in songwriting. Vikki Cook shares the story of writing the melody of “Before the Throne of God Above.”

WorshipGod 2017: Show, Don’t Tell: Steve & Vikki mentioned a study that shows that 30% of people prefer to communicate through concepts, while 70% prefer to communicate through the five senses, plus internal sensations like heartbeats and kinesthetics. The challenge for songwriters is that we are communicating abstract concepts like redemption. It can be incredibly powerful to show, not tell, what we’re trying to communicate. They include a group discussion of analyzing hymns and give exercises to come up with fresh metaphors.

WorshipGod 2017: Melodies that Sing: Steve & Vikki share the importance of prosody, melodies that emphasize what the lyric emphasizes and the accentuate the natural accents of words.

Keith & Kristyn Getty

In Christ Alone; The Power of the Cross; Christ Has Risen, He Has Risen Indeed

New Irish Hymns: Keith talks about his inspiration to start writing music, and the concept of modern hymns. He also plays and discusses “Behold the Lamb (Communion Hymn),” “Hear the Call of the Kingdom,” and “Merciful God.”

Irish Hymns: A Singing Faith for the Worshiping Church: Until 50 years before the presentation, most Christians either sang Psalms, liturgical music, or a hymnody where the average church knew and used about 200 songs. The advent of worship brought many exciting things, bridging the gap between theory and practice, between doctrine and everyday walks. But, Keith says, 95% of worship songs at the time of the presentation use very little Scripture and cover only 5%-10% of God’s attributes and only use the happy Psalms. He also discusses ways that churches that take everything else seriously theologically sometimes don’t take the music as seriously. He then talked his goals in using songs to teach theology and form souls. He played and discussed “A Higher Throne,” “Speak, O Lord,” “Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God,” and “Across the Lands.”

Behind the Songs: Part 1: Keith shares the story behind “In Christ Alone,” “The Power of the Cross,” “Come People of the Risen King,” “Creation Sings the Father’s Song,” “Compassion Hymn,” and “What Love is Mine.”

Behind the Songs: Part 2: Keith shares the story behind “Oh Church Arise,” “Love of God,” “Behold the Lamb,” “Spirit of Heaven,” and “Creation Sings,” and answers questions.

The making of worship songs for the modern church: Keith plays and discusses “Behold the Lamb,” then opens up a class discussion whether it should be named “Around the Table of the King” (Kristyn’s preference), “Behold the Lamb” (Stuart’s preference), or “Communion Hymn” (his preference), indicating that they were about to release it in a month and needed to decide. Then he discusses “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “See, What a Morning,” and “Oh Breath of God.”

Hymns, worship, and Christian thought, part 2: Keith discusses the writing of “Beneath the Cross,” “Speak Oh Lord,” “Every Promise of Your Word,” “Father, We Have Sinned,” “Across the Lands,” “My Heart is Filled With Thankfulness,” and “A Higher Throne.” Keith and Kristyn also perform most of these songs.

A musical and poetic vernacular for worship: Finding a heart language for the modern church: Three things are key to creating a vernacular. The first is finding a vernacular in music. He uses the term modern hymns because they’re written in a way everyone can sing. He’s studied classical music but also loves folk songs and classic songs. Stuart, Keith, and Kristyn don’t want to create something that’s CCM radio friendly or hip; they try to create a modern classic folk style that everyone can sing. He always felt that modern hymns were so wordy they would not work outside of western white men, but the folk style has made them accessible in many corners of the world.

The second key is finding a vernacular in lyrics. He was largely writing with Stuart Townend at the time; his lyrics might not have tight rhymes but are more in the vernacular. Kristyn had recently started writing with him; he described her lyrics as a little more feminine, more poetic, and slightly less heavy.

The third key is finding a common vernacular in what we sing. Modern worship music hasn’t settled on a Biblical theology of the Bible; it covers very few of the attributes of God and few other Scriptural topics. He plays and discusses “Merciful God,” “Beneath the Cross,” and “The Power of the Cross” and answered questions.

Songs that Jesus Said: Singing the Bible for young worshipers: Kristyn discusses the process of writing songs for children and discusses the intent of several of the songs on their Songs that Jesus Said project.

Frequency Podcast: Bonus Episode – Interview with Keith Getty: Keith discusses recording the Live at the Gospel Coalition project; one of the podcasters was in the 250-voice choir. He also discusses cowriting with Ed Cash on “Christ Has Risen, He Has Risen Indeed” and “Lift High the Name of Jesus.” Keith discusses writing the melody to “See, What a Morning” while watching a rugby match. He discusses the cowriting process.

Keith Getty Interviewed by Sweetwater: Keith discusses his musical background and the benefits and challenges of collaboration, and how hard it is to make a collaboration work long-term.

Advent with the Gettys: Rev. Foley Beach and Keith & Kristyn Getty discuss the meaning and the music of advent. They also discuss the Evensong album, Thanksgiving, and “My Heart is Filled With Thankfulness.” They also discuss writing some of their earliest songs together, “Born Where the Shadows Lie” and “Imagine.” They also sing “In the Bleak Midwinter” with a new chorus they wrote.

In Christ Alone: Keith talks about his start in songwriting, writing “In Christ Alone” with Stuart Townend, and the Irish Christmas tour.

My Worth is Not My Own: Keith tells the story behind “My Worth is Not In What I Own.”

How Was In Christ Alone Written? | Official Interview: Stuart and Keith tell the story behind writing “In Christ Alone.”

Easter and Hymns with Keith Getty: Keith discusses the fourteenth anniversary of the writing of “In Christ Alone.” He also discusses how they wrote “Christ Has Risen, He’s Risen Indeed” is written from the perspective of Thomas, and other Easter songs they’ve written, including “The Power of the Cross” and “See, What a Morning.”

Sing the Psalms: Tim Keller and Keith Getty discuss the importance of singing the Psalms and whether to sing Psalms with explicit Christological references or stick closer to the original.

Keith Getty on Congregational Singing, Writing Hymns, & The Power of Song: Keith Getty discusses why congregational singing is so important, the importance of singing in the life of a believer, the problem with a lot of modern worship, how to encourage congregational singing, tips for writing hymns, and why we may need to write fewer songs & introduce fewer songs in church.

5LQ Episode 213: Keith discusses the controversy over not changing the lyrics to “In Christ Alone.” He also discusses his vision for congregational singing, now and looking forward to 2050 and his daily schedule and creative process.

The Leadership Journey Podcast: Keith Getty: Keith discusses the importance of writing hymns and explains convictions about how what we sing impacts our spiritual formation. He also discusses the process of writing “In Christ Alone.”

What Does Worship Look Like on a School Night? Keith & Kristyn discuss Evensong, their family worship practices, and whether raising hands in worship is a command.

Finding Life in the Cross with Keith and Kristyn Getty: Keith & Kristyn discuss the centrality of the cross in the Christian faith and in their songwriting, and in a lighter moment, share how they got engaged. They also discuss the writing process of “The Power of the Cross.” They also discuss the inspiration of their most recent song at that point, “The Love of God,” and sing it.

Hymns That Lift Our Hearts and Minds to God: Keith and Kristyn give their biographical background and their mission in modern hymnwriting. They talk about the writing of “Across the Lands” and sing it. They also sing “In Christ Alone,” and Keith Getty discusses how it started as a new musical setting of “Give to Our God Immortal Praise.”

The Trinity Forum: Evening Conversation: Keith talks about music, beauty, and spiritual formation, focusing on why we sing and how it affects our spiritual formation in our families, churches, and communities. Keith & Kristyn sing two songs and answer questions.

The Modern Hymnal: An Interview With Keith Getty: Keith talks about his writing process, his goals, and the state of congregational music.

Kevin Twit

Arise, My Soul, Arise

Exploring the ‘why’ behind the modern hymn movement (part 1): Kevin makes the case that there is a modern hymn movement, something broader than just fans of Indelible Grace. He describes the cultural milieu around the time of the launch of the modern hymn movement and what made the mid-00’s youth receptive to it.

Exploring the ‘why’ behind the modern hymn movement (part 2): Kevin discusses the value to the modern truth of the way hymns capture and develop truth.

Matt Boswell

Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery, Sing We The Song of Immanuel, His Mercy Is More

Songwriting panel from 2016 Doxology & Theology Conference. Michael Bleecker, Matt Boswell, and Aaron Ivey discuss congregational songwriting and the songwriting process.

UPNext (audio): Matt Boswell and Matt Papa discuss their hymnwriting process and the recording of the album “His Mercy Is More.”

WorshipGod 2019: Songwriting Panel: Matt Boswell, Jordan Kauflin, Steve Cook, Vikki Cook, Adam Wright, and Nathan Stiff answer questions from songwriters about the songwriting process, sources of inspiration, and writing to serve both home congregations and broader audiences.

Matt Papa

Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery, Sing We The Song of Immanuel, His Mercy Is More

Look and Live (2014 Doxology & Theology Conference): Papa discusses the analogy of the Israelites looking to the bronze serpent in the wilderness as a parable for what faith and worship are like. The job of the worship leaders is to lift Jesus up as the hero of our worship sets. It’s a stirring call to the worship leader (or songwriter) to not love the art more than the Christ being lifted up in the art.

Aesthetics, Worship Hits, and God’s Holiness: Papa talks about seeking Aristotle’s Golden Mean in music, and gives as an example simple production on complex songs and complex production on simple songs. He gives criteria for judging a work of art:

  • Does it awaken wonder?
  • Is it comprehensible?
  • Is there complexity, depth, and gravity?
  • Is it true to reality?
  • Is it authentic to the artist?
  • Is it excellent?
  • Does it tell a story – is there a thread of redemption?
  • Is it suitable – does the aesthetic convey the message?

A chat with hymn-writer extraordinaire Matt Papa: Aaron Keyes interviews Matt Papa about co-writing, signing with Getty Music, and “His Mercy Is More.”

Matt Merker

He Will Hold Me Fast, Christ Our Hope in Life and Death

Matt Merker – Writing Singable Melodies: Matt offers extensive songwriting advice on how to write singable melodies. Like Stuart Townend’s first linked message is probably the most useful resource here on writing modern hymn lyrics, this is probably the most useful resource on writing singable melodies for modern hymns.

Do Theology Podcast: Matt shares his background and the story behind the new melody to “Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul”

Jonny Robinson and Rich Thompson (CityAlight)

Christ is Mine Forevermore, Grace

CityAlight: A Conversation about Singing and Songwriting for Normal Churches: In this interview, Jonny and Rich discuss how they met and started writing together, and the formation of CityAlight. Free registration is required to view the video.

Thumbnail image of a church service in Cairo, Egypt is “Church service, Cairo” by southtopia, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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