What Do Most Great Songs Have In Common?

When I first came to Nashville in the 80’s as a student, I was eager to learn all I could from the professional songwriters and producers of Christian music.  I vividly remember attending one of my first GMA songwriter showcases and hearing a young artist/writer named, David Baroni play some of his songs, alongside other great song crafters like Scott Wesley Brown.  He has spent 20 years since, in full-time ministry (Wow, he must have been way younger than me then, because he still looks 25!).  David is not only a prolific songwriter, but a recording artist, worship leader, conference speaker and Grammy Award winner to boot.  David is known for his work with Integrity Music and LaMar Boschman’s International Worship Instititute, and you’ve likely heard or sung his songs which have been recorded by the likes of Michael W. Smith, Selah, Don Moen, Ron Kenoly, Debby Boone, Phil Driscoll, Alvin Slaughter, Kent Henry, Morris Chapman and many others.

Below are a few excerpts from David’s new book on songwriting entitled, THE HEART AND ART OF SONGWRITING (available as an iBook here).  Thanks to David for contributing to this post on our SONGWRITING TIPS blog.  You can learn more about David by visiting his website, www.davidbaroni.com.

What Do Most Great Songs Have In Common?

In his book, THE HEART AND ART OF SONGWRITING, David Baroni answers this question.  Here’s an excerpt …

Great Songs Grab You

There is an infectious, joy-filled piano intro to a song that Natalie Cole performs called “This Will Be An Everlasting Love” that catches my ear and starts my toes tapping from the first note… every time I hear it! The production is replete with soaring strings, wailing harmonies, a counterpoint gospel electric piano sound, tight brass arrangement and a cool sounding conga drum; and it all is built upon the foundation of that soulful and exuberant piano riff.

Take a listen with headphones on sometime to hear how the acoustic and electric pianos complement each other. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Natalie Cole is a great singer and that the song is a well-written happy song about (what else?) love! Many movie soundtracks feature this song right in the beginning of the film to establish a great mood or toward the end of the film that piano intro starts playing just when things finally go right for the main character. This song grabs you!

Great Songs Move You

Music is a gift to help people express and feel emotions. As I write this chapter I am in Nigeria having just spent several days with some of the most celebrative, emotional, exuberant, passionate folks on the planet. Yesterday we had a celebration time and time of thanksgiving in a local church that had just sponsored a very successful all-night festival attended by between 40,000 and 50,000 people. It was a huge undertaking involving great sacrifice from literally hundreds of volunteers who undertook the J.A.M. (Jesus And Me) Megafest as a labor of love for God, the city of Abuja, and the nation of Nigeria.

I wish you could have been there at the “after-party” service at House on the Rock- The Refuge Church yesterday morning. The music, the songs, the singers MOVED us! Nothing was held back, and the primary emotional evocations were joy and gratitude.

Obviously the gamut of emotions doesn’t just stay at joy and celebration. I have song lyric that says “If I never knew sorrow, I could never be comforted.” Though well-crafted songs can help the listener transcend the cares and struggles of ordinary life, the best songs are not just well written. The songs that touch the heart the most, are born in pain and adversity- yet most of those songs offer a sense of hope as well.

One reason I was so moved by the songs of my Nigerian brothers and sisters is because, though I am limited in my understanding because I am only a visitor here, I have a sense of the struggles that these precious men and women, especially the older ones, have endured. The Bible says “comfort one another with the comfort that you are comforted with.” It’s scary to be needy, to need help- to need comfort. But it is wonderful when God encourages us as only He can! One of my favorite songs is a song written by my friend Wayne Tate and I called “Faithful God.”  The end of the verse:

Even when it’s hard to believe
Even when our hope seems all gone
There has never been a night without a dawn

 I have had “long lonely nights when the darkness hid the light.” I’ve also seen, just when I was about to give up hope, a glimmer of light, a lightening of the horizon as night surrenders to a new day and I have been made partaker of God’s mercies which are “new every morning.”

     The comfort you have received can move others to dare to hope again.

I remember very distinctly driving down the road thinking about the songs of hymn writer Fanny Crosby (“Blessed Assurance” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and 8,000 others!)  She was blinded by an incompetent doctor at 6 weeks of age, yet she said: “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”

I also thought about Horatio Spafford who wrote the beloved hymn of comfort “It Is Well With My Soul.”  I cried to the Lord: “God, I want to write songs like those hymn writers wrote; songs that touch people deeply.” He replied, “Are you aware of the suffering those writers went through?” I gulped and said “Hold that prayer for a moment Lord and let me think about this!”

Not all songs are written to affect the listener in dramatic ways (nor should they be.) There are myriad emotions and many ways to be moved by a song- the main thing is that a good song should help us feel, great songs move us. 

Great Songs Hold You

     Those of you who watch “American Idol” (or “Australian Idol” or “Indonesian Idol” or ____________ (insert your country here) probably have experienced what my wife Rita and I have as we occasionally watched the show. Invariably one or more of the performers fail to keep our interest part-way through the song. It falls flat and almost everybody knows it. Then Randy Jackson says: “Now look, Dog- last week you brought it, you laid it down, but this week… I don’t know man; I don’t think the song was right for you- you just didn’t take us anywhere, you didn’t hold our attention.”

What could be true in regards to a performance of a song can also be true in the writing of a song. I must confess that in the past (rarely, but it has happened) I would start out well with a song I was writing. The first verse and maybe even the chorus flowed, the melody was “hooky” and the music and rhythm was working well; then… well, then nothing! So I would force another verse; some lyrics or music that deep down I knew that I was just settling for. The song “had me at hello” but because of fatigue or laziness didn’t keep me (or potential listeners) because I gave up and took the easy way out and ended up with a mediocre, or even a bad song. (Or worse, a “so-what?” song.)

If you get tired while writing or co-writing you can always record what you have and take a break; even overnight or several days and come back to it with fresh ears and ideas later.

If you have a great start to what you think could be a great song, don’t settle for less than just the right words, the perfect melody or chord changes just because it gets difficult. Just take a break!

Then finish that keeper song that keeps people listening from start to finish. I have even waited years to finish a few songs. Sometimes your life experience has to catch up with what you are writing. Honor the song and make it the best it can be: a keeper song that holds the listener the whole way through.

Great Songs Stay With You

Great songs are like a great speech. In a good speech there usually is an introduction, the main body of the speech and the conclusion.

In the introduction the person giving the speech tells the audience what he or she is about to say. In the body of the speech, she says it. In the conclusion, the speaker tells them what she just told them. It looks like this:

 Introduction: Tell them what you are about to tell them
Body: Tell them
Conclusion: Sum it up- tell them what you just told them.

Many of my songs have followed this pattern, though most of the time it was an instinctive rather than conscious intention on my part. …

… The verse is the introduction. Musically and lyrically I tell the listener (the audience) what I am about to tell them. In the chorus I tell them (the body, the main purpose of the song or speech.) A chorus should convey the main idea of the song and the more memorable it is, the catchier the melody and words and chords and rhythm are; the better. So what about the bridge? …

… The bridge, like the conclusion of a good speech, tells the listener what they just heard in the verse and the chorus. It reinforces, sometimes with powerful effect, what the verse and chorus were about. Good songs that stay with you paint pictures, tell stories and keep you humming the melody even when you are not conscious of it.

Of course, bad songs can get stuck in your brain too. Why is that? I believe it’s because there is a “gift of memory” that God placed inherently in the gift of music. He put it there, in my humble opinion, to help His children remember Who He is, His promises, His word. That’s why I want to be a good steward of the songwriting gift, and hopefully write songs that are worth remembering, that stay with the listener!

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6 comments on “What Do Most Great Songs Have In Common?

  1. Hello David,
    Throughout the years I have been inspired by your writing and it is with great pleasure that i can witness the effort you’re putting forth to share your God-given gift with this generation….May God shine His light upon this book so that others may glean from your wisdom and passion

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  3. I am a forty-six year old man.I have felt like I had something to say through music for years.I love to write songs.I have two songs in Nashville that they wanted me to pay for new vocals on.I want to trust people,but I always thought that if my songs were good enough they wouldn’t need money upfront.I have held back for years because of the stories of writers having their songs stolen.I feel I have wasted alot of the precious time God has given me.I just want to thank you for your honesty about becoming a better songwriter.I feel deep down that this is what God has given me to do with my life.Although I have tried many different occupations,I’m only happy when I’m writing,and making music.Thank you for your time. David Whitehead

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