• Tia Brown

Worship Songwriting: the Ultimate Beginner's Guide

Updated: May 18

Jump to section:

  1. Wait, wait… Why me?!

  2. Why Write MORE Worship Songs?

  3. God is Infinite

  4. Everyone is Unique

  5. Starting with the Basics

  6. Purpose: What is it for?

  7. Direction: Who is Speaking to Whom?

  8. Writing the Lyrics

  9. Keep it Personal

  10. Keep it Authentic

  11. Keep it Simple

  12. How Do I Write the Music?

  13. Common Song Structure

  14. What Rhythm (Time Signature) to Use

  15. What Notes to Use

  16. What Chords to Use

  17. Common Chord Progressions

  18. Making it Singable for the Congregation

  19. Need More Help?

Let me be the first to say: I’m so glad you’re here!

Songwriting is an amazing way to worship God and express your unique relationship with Him. I pray that you’re blessed through this journey and that others are blessed through you!

If you’ve never written a song before, or have tried in the past but weren’t happy with the results, that’s okay. This article is for you!

Whether your dream is to write for just yourself, for your church, or possibly for a career, I hope this will help set you on the right track. If you still have questions, comment below or contact me anytime!

Let’s do this.

Wait, wait… Why me?!

Why in the world would you think I’m the one to be writing worship songs? Don’t you need years of music training or some kind of crazy gifting?

I know you’re probably envisioning your song being used as a torture device (yes, sadly, that’s a real thing) but hear me out:

Music is not a set of numbers you must perform. Music, at its heart, is a language. It is a tool to communicate the deepest emotions of the soul.

That’s why they call it “music theory.” We don’t know the depths of it. And never will. Do you remember sitting down and learning your native language? Probably not. You didn’t memorize it–you lived it. You grew up hearing it and speaking it. Then, when it was time, someone taught you its rules so you could have even greater freedom to express yourself.

I didn’t memorize every letter of this article. No one taught it to me. I’m creating it myself, using language as a tool to communicate. Have you grown up listening to music? Can you sing your favorite song with confidence? Do you grimace when someone blasts the wrong chord? Does certain music move you and stir your soul?

You may not be a skilled music linguist, but you do know music. You’ve grown up listening to that language and speaking it. You have something you are burning to communicate deep within you, and you need to get it out.

Go get a pencil. You are about to write your first sentence.

Why Write More Worship Songs?

First, let’s get an elephant out of the room: why should you write a worship song? Doesn’t the church already have more than they can handle?

Yes, there are a lot of worship songs out there. CCLI has over 300,000 songs to choose from. That number is nothing though! According to MarsBands, there are 97 million songs in existence–and that number is growing!

How about this statistic: about 32% of the world’s population claims Christianity (1/3 of the planet!) That’s about 2.18 BILLION people! Of those people, on average 30-50% attend church. That still leaves well over a billion people who worship God with songs daily. Many people probably listen to even more worship music throughout the week as well.

This does not factor in the rise of thousands of 24/7 prayer rooms. Music often plays an essential role in prayer rooms. There are over 1000 in the US alone! Millions of people gather to worship in prayer rooms all across the globe, and that number is steadily growing.

Do we still have too many worship songs? You tell me.

But whether we have enough or not, we still need more songs. Always will, for at least 2 reasons:

God is Infinite

“Many Spirit-filled authors have exhausted the thesaurus in order to describe God with the glory He deserves. His perfect holiness, by definition, assures us that our words can’t contain Him. Isn’t it a comfort to worship a God we cannot exaggerate?”—Francis Chan

We can celebrate what He is doing right now, has done in the past, and will do in the future, explore infinite His character and power, or encourage each other in Christ. There is so much to sing about, this will go on for eternity!

Four thousand people were dedicated to the ministry of music for the worship of Israel. I believe the Lord was very serious about music in worship. -Ministry 127

There are always new things that God is showing us individually and as the Body of Christ. The old songs are still amazing as well, but at one point those too were brand new songs.

Everyone is Unique

We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him. DesiringGod

Since every person’s relationship with God is completely unique, everyone has a song to sing that will reveal an aspect of God no one else can express.

God is constantly working specifically in your life and in your church as a whole. There may not be a song out there that adequately expresses that. Why not write one, then?

If the Spirit of God is at work in the lives of His people, the song of His people should reflect that. -Worship Life

Every church should consider writing songs for their own situations. Famous songs such as “Heart of Worship” and “It is Well” were written out of very unique and personal situations (click the links to read their stories).

Scripture often declares “sing to Him a new song!” The original Hebrew meaning there is “Sing to God a song only you can sing.” It is a very precious act of worship to God when you lift your voice in song, instead of just copying the work of another.

Even if you’re just humming a melody under your breath, or singing a heartfelt prayer that rhymes badly and is off-key, give it a try anyway! I’ve done this many times between just me and God. It is so very precious to Him!

Starting with the Basics

Purpose: What is it for?

How will your song be used? Most songs will fall into one of 3 categories:

  1. Personal worship

  2. Congregational worship

  3. Presentation/special

Congregational songs will have simple melodies, easy-to-follow lyrics, and a generally singable key (more on that later). Hymns are the exception because, back when they were written, most everyone could sing in four-part harmonies and the complex music was a congregational expression of worship in itself.

Presentation songs expect the audience to just spectate, so you’re allowed much more artistic freedom.

Personal songs are just that: personal. You probably won’t show it to many people. It’s for edifying your private relationship with God. So no rules here either!

Direction: Who is Speaking to Whom?

There are four basic “directions” of worship:

  1. Man to man

  2. Man to God

  3. God to man

Another question you might ask: is God talking to the church as a whole, or is it towards the individual?

Try not to use more than one direction in your song. Let’s keep it simple!

Writing the Lyrics

You will need:

  • God and your favorite Bible

  • prayer closet

  • pencil and paper

  • prayer journal

1. Keep it Personal

Write about what God is doing specifically in your life or in your church.

A great writer will bring the worshiper along with them into deeper relationship with the living God. -Worship Deeper

Don’t aim to impress, write the greatest song ever, get recognition, or “cause the fire to fall.”

Just make it about you and God. Besides, if the only thing that the song does is help you get closer to God, then it was well worth it!

Write ideas in a Journal

Write in it your struggles, your prayers, God’s responses to you. Rewrite scripture passages as the Holy Spirit reveals their deeper meaning to you. Or simply rewrite scripture itself into a song!

If you’re writing a song for your church to sing, write down what your church has been going through and what you are learning as a family.

Sing your prayers

This gave birth to many songs for me. It also boosted my confidence and skill as a songwriter. As I mentioned above, your unique songs are precious to Him!

2. Keep it Authentic

Start and end with Jesus

We will never exhaust the amount of revelation God has in store for us in Scripture. It is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and reveals Jesus to us (John 5:39). Truth is not mere mental knowledge or established laws, Truth is a real, living Person (John 14:6)! Start by seeking Jesus. Then, many years down the line, anyone who sings your song will continue to experience Him and seek Him as well.

Please don’t use these common cliches!

Some rhymes have been used far too much (this hilarious Blimey Cow video explains it perfectly!). You probably can name a few you’re tired of hearing too:

  • grace, face

  • fire, desire

  • love, above

  • loss, cross

  • shame, name

  • save, grave

  • soul, whole

I got most of this list from Worship Matters: Top Ten Ways to Write Bad Worship Songs. I know how easy it is to use these rhymes, but since they are in nearly every song, they seem to have lost most of their real meaning.

3. Keep it Simple

Write about one topic at a time

It’s okay if your lyrics are a bit unfocused to start out with. Whether you start with a solid theme or let it develop on its own later is up to you. But at some point in your writing process, you’ll need to double-check that your lyrics aren’t taking your audience for a wild roller coaster ride.

Like any great sniper, you won’t be very effective without a chosen target.

There’s no one best way to write a song

Just do whatever feels most natural to you, learn as you go, and have fun with God! Some people prefer writing the words first. Others write the music first. Most of the time, it may end up being a combination of both.

I personally love just singing spontaneously towards God until a lyric and melody develop. I loved to do this while I was serving as a housekeeper. It helped me worship in a more personal, meaningful way. And God enjoys my singing!

Start with a hook or phrase and build from there

You don’t need to write all the words perfectly the first time. You can start with something simple like “Teach me how to love You.” Keep that as your cornerstone to write the rest of the song.

And when you’re developing the lyrics, try to be as concise as possible. It is better to have one sentence packed full of meaning than ten wordy verses.

How Do I Write the Music?

You will need:

  • access to a piano or guitar

  • an ear for what sounds good musically

  • basic knowledge of chords (or this chord search engine)

  • pencil and paper

If you still are not sure about bothering with the music side and just want to write lyrics, that’s okay too. Lots of great music is written that way–take Mark Lowry’s famous “Mary Did You Know” for example.

Find a musician willing to help you out, maybe show them this article.

This is an easy, generalized walk-through for anyone who is nervous about writing music or worried that they might write it “wrong.” You don’t have to stick to this, of course. Use your musical ear and creative freedom. There’s so much more to learn about music and songwriting, so dive in as much as you want! For now though, here is a simple place to begin.

  1. Pick your notes (melody)

  2. Pick a chord pattern

  3. Transpose into a singable key (if needed)

Disclaimer: Feel free to write your song in any creative order you want to. You may have your chords already picked out, but not a melody. You make have a key picked out but not the chords. Whatever works best for you!

Common Song Structure

I won’t go too much into this part, because you’ve probably sung enough songs to know what song structure you like best.

Song structure is how you arrange the different parts of a song.

Possible song parts include:

  • Verse

  • Pre-chorus

  • Chorus

  • Bridge

  • Refrain

For more info about each one, see this article by Worship Community.

The most common song structure for worship songs is basically V-Ch-V-Ch If you add a bridge, it may look like this: V-Ch-V-Ch-B-Ch-Ch

Songs like Cornerstone use only verses.

Play around with it and have fun. Pick what you like best, but don’t stress over it. The finer details can wait.

What Rhythm (Time Signature) to Use

For simplicity’s sake, there are really only two options: 3/4 or 4/4. Which one do you choose? Don Moen explains it best!

Rhythm is a bit hard to explain, and I’ve never been a great scholar about it myself. 4/4 is the easiest one to use and the most common.

4/4 just means that you can count “1 and 2 and 3 and 4” during the whole song. The first “4” is an indicator of how many beats. The second “4” represents the size of the beat. That’s getting into technical music theory stuff we don’t need to learn right now.

3/4 (ONE two three ONE two three) is more of a hopscotch beat. But it’s a little harder to play for a musician (it’s not that bad, but just it throws me off now and then).

What Notes to Use

Here’s the plan: Pick a key you’re comfortable playing/singing with for now (print my “All Major Scales” cheat sheet to see your options). Sit down at the piano and pick out a melody, using only the 8 notes that belong to that key (also in my cheat sheet). Write it down so you don’t forget!

As I explained in 5 Ways to Play More than Just a Chord, there is a sure-fire way to create a melody that will NEVER sound “off”!

It’s called the Scale.

I won’t go into the whole music theory around it here, so this is basically how it works: A scale is a set of 8 notes that begin and end with the same note. They all follow a specific mathematical pattern and sound great together. It’s this set of notes that make up all the notes you’ll ever need to make basic chords and melodies.

For example, these are the notes that belong to the C Scale: C D E F G A B C

The C Scale: C D E F G A B C

When writing a song, all you need for a great-sounding melody are these notes. You don’t have to worry about the rest of the notes if you’d rather keep things simple. You can use any of these notes anywhere on the piano (for singability, try to keep it near Middle C. But we’ll cover that more later).

Here’s my free cheat sheet of all the major scales (includes pictures!) that you can download and print. Try out some easy ones and pick one that’s most comfortable for you to sing. I’m more of an alto, so I like to sing in A or E. If C works great for you, stick with that.

We can change the key later for congregational use later (if you’re writing the song to be sung for worship services). What matters now is that you have a simple canvas to paint on.

What Chords to Use

Here’s the plan: Write down the 6 basic chords of the key you’re in (download my “All Chord Sets” cheat sheet to see all your options). Pick a few chords and use them to create your chord progression. From there, add other chords and mix and match if you want. Or stick with the same exact chord progression for the whole song. If you don’t like how the melody sounds with the chord, alter one or both a little until you’re satisfied.

There’s a set of 6 basic chords used to build every song (Well, technically there’s a 7th one but it’s a weird diminished chord nobody uses. So we’ll just focus on 1 to 6):

Key of C:

C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am 1 2 3 4 5 6

Try this! I found a super cool search engine for chords. It shows the piano notes, fingering, sounds, and even the guitar version! You’re welcome 😉

Use chords that sound great with your melody. When creating, you can use any key/scale you like best. Songs can always be transposed later if need be. The key of C is the easiest to work with since it is just white notes.

If you don’t want to come up with a progression entirely from scratch, try using some of these:

Common Chord Progressions

Most contemporary songs use a simple pattern of chords over and over, making them easy to play and memorize. And in our case, easy to write!

We’ll write out some chord progressions as numbers. That way, no matter what key you’re playing in, you can easily find what chords belong to each chord progression. Key of C:

1 2 3 4 5 6 C Dm Em F G Am

If you search online, some use Roman Numerals instead of numbers, like this:

I ii iii IV V vi C Dm Em F G Am

(Notice: the lower cases are minor chords and the capitals are major chords) The most common set of chords used in a song are 1-4-5-6 (I-IV-V-vi) in any order (in the key of C: C, F, G, and Am).

Many worship songs also use this progression: 1-6-2-5-1 (I-vi-ii-V-I) (in the key of C: C, Am, Dm, G, C)

Here are some other common chord progressions (more info at Wikihow: Add Piano Chords to any Melody):

  • I IV V I

  • I vi IV V

  • I ii IV V

  • vi IV I V

  • I V vi iii IV I ii V

Pick one you like, maybe change it up a little to fit your song. Here are a few tips on adding chords:

  1. Pick a chord that uses similar notes to your melody (don’t stress over it, though. It doesn’t have to be perfect)

  2. If you’re still not sure what chord to use, this tip from WikiHow had a brilliant idea: sing into a guitar tuner!

  3. When in doubt, just use 1, 4, 5, and 6. Minor and major chords are often interchangeable. Musicians can easily suggest chord changes to dress it up later. Still, many worship songs only use these 4 basic chords, so it’s totally fine if you do too!

Making it Singable for the Congregation

Here’s the plan: Now that you’re happy with your melody and chords, it’s time to show it off to the church. But wait! Is it in a key that everyone else can sing to? Let’s check real quick.

Most women sing high and most men sing low. Since everyone’s range is vastly different, how do you know what key your song should be in so everyone can comfortably sing it?

Most worship leaders lead from the guitar or have the guitar as the main instrument.

Fortunately for them, the easiest keys to play on guitar are also the easiest keys for the congregation to sing in. That’s why most songs are sung in G, A, E, D, or C (check out this infographic at Musicademy).

The second most popular keys are: Bb, Eb, Ab, and F

Most musicians find the remaining three keys nearly impossible to play in (although F# is my absolute favorite because I think it is the most beautiful of all of them): F#, Db (aka C#), and B

What key is used really depends on the song’s melody.

The general singable range of a congregation is from A (below Middle C) to D (above Middle C), as shown here:

The general singable range for most congregations: A to DDoes your melody fall within this range? Play your melody to check real quick. If it doesn’t, you may want to change the key.

The easiest way to transpose keys

  1. Write down your current chords

  2. Rewrite them as numbers (as demonstrated in the Chord Pattern section)

  3. Pick the new key/scale you want to use

  4. Rewrite the numbers as the new chords

Again, most of the time using the key of G, A, D, E, or C works just fine.

For more tips on picking the right key, check out this article on Discover Worship.

Need More Help?

Get your own paperback Worship Songwriting Book here!

I was going to make a long list of great songwriting resources, but none of them came close to how incredible Don Moen’s Songwriting Workshop has been! It’s super simple, encouraging, and focused on what matters most! He has a lot of other worship team-related videos as well. I LOVE his song “God Will Make a Way”!

What are your best worship songwriting tips? Have a great cheat sheet idea? Share your thoughts below 🙂

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