The Old Jedi Songwriting Trick: Lessons from Yoda
By Jon Nicol - 11/20/2003 - 12:48 AM EST
(c) 2003 Jon Nicol
If you’re at all a fan of Star Wars, you were excited to finally see Yoda show his stuff in Episode II. Thanks to computer animation, the Jim Henson Muppet turned Jedi Master was actually able to have an action scene. Master Yoda: the wisest of the Jedi, deadly with a light saber, able to pull X-wing fighters out of the mud with only his mind, and a fine songwriting instructor. Didn’t know that about the little green love child of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, did you.
Actually, Yoda’s Jedi job today is to show us how NOT to write lyrics:
“Away put your weapon, I mean you no harm.”
“Your father he is, but face him you must.”
“Begun the clone war has.”
Notice a pattern here? Everything’s backwards. That’s fine when you’re a Force-wielding frog from Dagobah, but what about in songwriting? This is where some people would disagree with me, but I believe if you wouldn’t say it that way in normal conversation, it probably shouldn’t be written that way in song lyrics.
I was in a songwriting seminar with Pat Pattison early in my writing days. He stressed that songwriting is communication. We as songwriters, with every song, are trying to communicate something. When we rearrange the words (for reasons we’ll talk about in a moment), we no longer have people focusing on what is being said, but how it was said.
And since this column is primarily concerned with songwriting for worship, let me say that “Christian” and “worship” songwriters are some of the worst culprits of this. It’s like we’ve been Yoda’s Jedi songwriting apprentices for years. Maybe we’ve taken the cue from the old hymns. These songs are riddled with rearranged sentences. But that was also the writing style of the day.
The absolute number one reason we do this switch-a-roo is because we serve the rhyme, versus the rhyme serving us. Example time:
This past Christmas my former church did an incredible cantata from some well-known Christian/gospel songwriters. The songs ranged from soulful ballads to r&b to pat-a-pan and everything in between. There was one song in particular that was a showstopper. It had this Chicago (the band—not the musical) vibe happening. But right in the middle were these two lines:
“The kings came calling after following a star
On their knees falling, despite who they are.”
It was catchy to sing because the melody/music was so well written, and not to mention the “calling/falling” internal rhyme. But every time we would come to that line, I wanted to stop and rewrite it. Anyone who can understand English would have no problem understanding what we were singing. But there’s a split second after you hear something like this that your mind has to rearrange it. Some of you are reading this and saying, “This guy is a little too hung up on details.” Trust me, if you haven’t noticed before, you will now. And you'll hate me for it.
Another extremely popular song that has a “Yodaism” is “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe. Don’t get me wrong--I think this is a great song, but there are a couple lines where the lyrics cater to the rhyme scheme:
Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You Jesus, or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in Your presence or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing “Hallelujah”? Will I be able to speak at all?
I remember the first couple times I heard this song and really listened to the words. It took a few seconds to catch “in awe of you be still” and “to my knees will I fall.” At first I was ready to write off the song for what I perceived as lazy writing. But the more I’d hear it, the more I started to dig it—despite those two lines. And guess what. It won Song of the Year that next year at the Dove Awards. And now it’s blitzing mainstream radio. So can you still write a great song with a few schizophrenic sentences? Absolutely.
Another example of a recent song with “Yodaisms” is Stuart Townend/Keith Getty’s “In Christ Alone (My Hope is Found)." It’s got several sentences that are turned around for the rhyme’s sake. But it works—and works well—because it’s written in the old “hymn” style, complete with 4 stanzas, no chorus and ¾ time. It’s an incredible tune! Check it out if you haven’t already heard it.
Besides the Yodisms, a few other “language” issues can detract from what you are truly communicating.
Thee’s and thou’s are one thing in a hymn, but today, that language sounds archaic to most. You’ll often hear someone throw in a “thee” because “you” doesn’t rhyme with “tree” or “me” or “sea.”
Right meaning, lousy word
Very few people use the word “trod” in everyday language. However, worship writers use it frequently because it rhymes with “God.” And don’t forget, you can “trod” on “sod” in your pursuit of “God.”
Another oft-used phrase in Christian music is, “I Am.” (If you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s God’s own description of Himself.) You’ll often find “I Am” tucked in a line preceding or following a line containing “Lamb.”
We could go on and name several over-used, cheesy rhymes and clichés in Christian music. And am I guilty of using every single one? You bet. Will I do it again? Probably, but I will work hard to see if there isn’t something else that could work.
We have to keep asking ourselves, “Is the listener hearing what I’m saying, or how I’m saying it?” Imagine the one song that makes you “get lost” and “lose time.” Great songs like that don’t let the lyrics get in the way of the message.
The bottom line is this: As people are singing your song in worship, you want them singing from the bottom of their toes. If the language is unnatural, it will take longer before the person “internalizes” what they are singing.
A special thanks to Yoda for his willingness to help teach us. May the force be with you.
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