CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International, Inc.) releases a semi-annual list of the top worship songs sung by churches throughout America.
A similar list is also published in Europe, Australia, South Africa, and the other far-flung locales where CCLI works with churches to “encourage the spirit of worship”. Each list is an indicator of the songs that have crossed not only denominational boundaries, but also the sometimes fuzzy lines between worship styles in different regions.
As a songwriter I’ve 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 my “Top Ten Traits” that are important in the success of these favorite 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 “Your Love Never Fails” 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 is, “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 the music and lyrics compliment each other but should ideally bring out the best in each other. When heard alone, does the music incite the same emotion or message that the lyric expresses? Does the pitch, rhythm, tension and energy in the melody naturally fit with the lyrics? “Everlasting God” is an example of effective prosody.
4. Lyric Originality
The lyricist of a top worship 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? “How Great Is Our God” 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 “Jesus Messiah” both place the title as the opening line of the chorus. “Your Grace Is Enough,” “Blessed Be Your Name” and “How Great Is Our God” make use of repetition. “Forever” and “Forever Reign” 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.
"I’ve saved the most important for last."
10. Effectiveness in Worship
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.