In my last post, I introduced my project to help songwriters and worship leaders to write and select more meaningful songs for corporate worship.
Words are the poet’s primary tool so let’s start with diction–the author’s choice of words.
Denotation and Connotation
Words can carry meaning beyond the definition(s) we find in the dictionary, the denotations. Many words also have strong connotations–the associations, or imaginative meanings they carry. Connotation can be a very effective tool for writing powerful lyrics, but they can mess up a song too. When choosing words for your song, consider not just what the words mean, but also what they suggest.
Word Choice: A Literary Example
What can a sensitivity to diction do for my songwriting?
We will start by looking at a poem and discussing the effect of diction, then we will look at a praise and popular worship song that does a pretty good job with diction.
“Desert Places” by Robert Frost
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
This poem is the reflections on the loneliness of the speaker as he walks past a field in the evening. But the words of the poem don’t simply explain the speaker’s loneliness–they allow us to imaginatively experience them.
In the first line, the words “falling” and “fast” are repeated. Consider the effect of repeating these words in such close proximity–does it hint at a sense of alarm? The rest of the first stanza partially allays this impression with a peaceful description of the snow-covered field. But we can’t shake their disturbing effect, even in the peaceful context of a snowy evening.
After the first line of the second stanza, where the trees take possession of the field, we read, “All animals are smothered in their lairs.” This line really shows the power of diction in the hands of a master. Consider how different the effect would be if Frost had written, “All animals are cozy in their dens.” Big difference. The connotation of “smothered” is to murder someone by suffocating them with a pillow. A “lair” where beast and monsters live. Frost’s lines are disturbing, and this is the work of his choice of these particular words.
After this comes “The loneliness includes me unawares.” This line, occupying the central position of the poem, carries the central idea. The waves of loneliness come in four recurrences of the words lonely or loneliness. Another group of words reinforces the idea of, for lack of a better term, absence: “absent-spirited,” “blanker,” “no expression,” “empty,” “desert.” The diction in the second stanza strongly emphasizes the ideas of loneliness and absence. It is clear, the speaker doesn’t just lack friends. We are talking about an existential loneliness.
The word “scare” is a most intriguing word in the context of this poem. It lacks the sophistication of the other words used in this poem–it’s like he’s scoffing at the vastness of space, (“You can’t scare me!”)claiming his interior loneliness is far more profound.
This is not all we could say about this poem, but it’s enough to illustrate that the author’s choice of words can have a tremendous effect.
Word Choice: A Worship Song Example
When I went looking for a praise and worship song that provided a good example of diction, I went to the list of most popular songs from CCLI. I found very little until I got to the twenty-second in the list. And this contained lyrics from an old hymn. I did not expect to find anything close to the density effective word choice of Robert Frost’s poem above, but it is clear that selecting words for effect is not a priority for worship-song writers.
Here are some lines from Stuart Townsend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This song, provides us with some examples of how diction can be used in a worship song.
How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasureHow great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory. . .Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom
In the first stanza, we find the word “wretch.” The connotations of “wretch” are not simply that of a pathetic victim, but of a deliberately villainous rascal. Words like ingrate, knave, liar, and lowlife, are its synonyms. But in an amazing reversal of expectation, this villain is considered the Father’s “treasure.” Here the connotations are of heaps of gold and jewels. Meaning pulses at the intersection of “wretch” and “treasure.”
The second stanza shows us Christ’s suffering from the rejection of his Father on our behalf. The pain of loss is “searing.” It’s not just pain that this word communicates, but a very specific kind of pain. The connotations of this word suggest the deliberate burning of flesh associated with medieval torture. In spite of being ungrateful lowlifes, he pays our “ransom,”–another word loaded with meaning.
The first several times we sing this song, the music or some of the lines will bring us into worship quite easily, but after we sing it five or six times, we begin to experience a deeper conviction through the power of these words. The gratitude that results will be even greater, and probably the volume of the singing.
My desire is that almost every song we sing in church gets more powerful every time we sing it, rather than less. Diction is the first, but it is not the only step toward this end.
Next time we will return to the important topic of diction in Developing a Poetic Ear
Posts in this series: