LDS Songwriting Basics Part 1 – Getting Started

LDS Songwriting Basics Part 1 – Getting Started

I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all my life, and I can honestly say that although I have had moments that have deepened my testimony and conversion, I don’t recall a time when that testimony wasn’t there.  My family was highly active in all kinds of Church activities and programs including the ultimate experience of singing with a family choir in a session of General Conference, and it was a happy part of my growing up years.   I loved being a Latter-day Saint!

I also grew up in a family where music was prominent in everyday life—from piano lessons, to ward choir (which I joined in 2nd grade), to community musicals, to a fairly regular Family Home Evening activity we called “Family Band”.  For the latter, I started in my early years playing the comb–a black small-toothed hair comb with a piece of tissue paper behind it that, when pressed to my mouth and sung through, sounded something like a kazoo.  I loved music!

It comes as no surprise that these two elements of my life would meet in my desire to compose music that expressed my testimony.  I know through my experience of years in the world of LDS music that this is common.  There are many people who have the desire to express their strong feelings of testimony and devotion to God and gratitude for his blessings by writing music and lyrics.   Some find that fulfillment, and some do not.

I have found, also through experience, that a testimony and a longing to express it in a musical way are not enough to bring about that desire that so many people have.  Many are frustrated when their musical creations seem to land short of where they would like them to be.  Here are some basic starting points that may be helpful to those who fall into this category and whose righteous desires have yet to come to fruition.

1. Understand the Lord’s will for music in His plan and in His Church.  This is first and foremost, so that you know why you are doing what you are doing.  It starts at the most basic level with the 13th Article of Faith where we learn that we are download (2)to seek after anything “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.”  We are told in modern revelation that “the song of the righteous is a prayer” unto Him, and it will be answered with blessings upon our heads.  Study the Doctrine of Music, and ponder how it applies to you and your personal mission.  Seek personal revelation about what role the Lord wants you to play in the music of the gospel, and then move forward with faith that He can work through you to accomplish His objectives.  He wants us to have joy in the journey, but the creation of sacred music is for His glory, not for our own.  I like to say, “It’s not about me.”

2. Music is a skill, and songwriting is a craft.  Take every opportunity you can to learn the craft and develop the skill.  Inspiration, although key in writing sacred music, is not enough.  It must be coupled with a well-developed ability to express oneself within the elements of the craft. Take lessons in songwriting, piano or another instrument; attend songwriting workshops; join 0I2A1786songwriter organizations and Facebook groups;  listen to podcasts and workshops online, read articles, and watch YouTube videos to get free training from people who are further along than you (there is always someone who is further along the path that you can learn from); submit music and enter contests to get exposure and experience and where you can sometimes receive critique and suggestions on your work; take any opportunity to be mentored by those who have accomplished what you would like to do.  Much of creativity can be natural, but much is a learned process.  Ultimately writing music and lyrics, even in the sacred genre, is a craft that must be studied and practiced.

3. Listen to music, and a lot of it.  There are two reasons for this.  First, it is a way to learn.  Listen with an analytical ear.  See what is being done that makes you like a particular song.  Look for form and melody and about-lds-playlistslyrical elements that you can model.  Modeling is a legitimate songwriting exercise that involves examining form and content and then creating something similar after the pattern that we have examined.  Second, it is a way to fill your well.  We always want to be very careful that we are not plagiarizing or quoting someone else’s work when we write (and this is a good reason to have someone familiar with a lot of music listen to your work and objectively tell you if they hear anything familiar), but listening to music creates a well of ideas and concepts from which our subconscious pulls when we write.

4. Practice, practice, practice.  If you are serious about writing, you should be doing it regularly.  It has been said (in the pop music world) that a person must write an average of 100 songs to get that one really good song.  I am of the opinion that in463100-226858-34 religious music the odds may be a little better, especially when inspiration from Heavenly Father is taken into consideration.  But don’t forget inspiration must be met with preparation and skill.  Keep a writing “journal” with you and work on it in your spare time each day, or better yet, schedule time each day to work on your musical and lyrical ideas.  Record musical ideas with a digital recorder or phone because great ideas can be fleeting.  Be listening in church meetings for title ideas or a new take on a subject that might make a good song.  Several songwriters I know have suggested that there is great benefit in the exercise of writing a song a day for any given amount of time—a week, a month, or 100 days.  The point is to get the pump primed and flowing.

5. Allow yourself the baby steps, and decide not to be too self-critical while you are gaining experience.  It isn’t a problem to learn from our baby steps.  It’s okay to  say, “I can do better than that,”  however, don’t let perfectionism get a hold and prevent you from doing good along the way.  Many times during my early music writing efforts I was way too busy being critical of myself to realize that even though my music wasn’t perfect, it was still doing good for those who heard it.  It was too easy to focus on what I thought was lacking.  I have worked hard to overcome that and learn to simply express gratitude—to God for helpiJKP-Photo-2013ng me create what I did, and to the people who pay the compliments for their kind words and encouragement.   In addition, realize that small is not necessarily a pronouncement of failure.  Your music doesn’t have to gain church-wide exposure to be useful and successful.  Well-known LDS music writer, Janice Kapp Perry, sent her early works to the Church Music Department and was told to “brighten [her] own little corner of the world” and that if the songs were good, they would hear about them.  Many of her most beloved songs were local assignments for her ward and stake.

In future posts, we will discuss some of the elements mentioned above in further detail, but for now, start where you are.  The Lord accepts all of our offerings of music, at every level, if we offer it to Him from the heart! “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” (D&C 136:28.)

~Rachel Mecham Goates

Here are some helpful articles. podcasts, and websites from which I have drawn for my musical “education”.

The Fun and Fear of Finding our Talents by Janice Kapp Perry

Anatomy of a Talent by Janice Kapp Perry

Hymns of Light–12 Essays on Hymn Writing by Orson Scott Card

Composer/Arranger Merrill Jenson discusses Composing 

Composer, Conductor, Producer–Rob Gardner talks about his writing

Steps to Hymn Writing: A Mostly Mythical Story Plus Comments by Karen Lynn Davidson

Goals-A Stroke of Inspiration by Janice Kapp Perry

Composers Scott Wiley and Sam Cardon talk about their Talents and Creativity

The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord by Boyd K. Packer

The Gospel Vision of the Arts by Spencer W. Kimball

Choose Your Words (How to Write a Poem that May be a Good Hymn) by Karen Lynn Davidson

Guidelines for Writing Latter-day Hymns by Alexander Schriener

Songwriting 101: Where to Begin?


About The Author

Rachel Mecham Goates is partner and Director of Marketing at Music for Worship and She is an award-winning composer, arranger, and songwriter, whose works have been widely performed in the United States and internationally. Rachel is the mother of seven children and resides in a rural town in central Utah.

Have your say!

Have your say!


Name *

Email *