How to Arrange Music for Worship
A friend recently remarked that there are, in fact, three approaches to arranging. Beforehand, during the song, or wishing you had made an effort to arrange it afterwards. Many people are scared of arranging music beforehand as they think it involves writing full music scores and resort to just chords over song lyrics. Remember though, that a chord chart is not the arrangement. A full music score can be the arrangement, but has anyone ever seen a full score of a worship song for every instrument in the band, and even if it was available, could everyone even read it? Therefore we need to plan some parts beforehand with some simple rules and charts that everyone can follow regardless of their musical education.
If this is combined with learning how to communicate, listen and fit in with each other on the fly (as discussed last issue) then it really will help develop musical maturity in your team.
For the planning element, try to make sure each individual knows how to play the song before you start to work with it as a band. Don’t waste valuable rehearsal time by teaching the song and the chords. That should be done before you come together collectively in order that you can use the time to get the song to gel with all the musicians. Start with finding the right tempo and groove and then build the other instruments’ parts around it. Tempo often has to do with how comfortable it is to sing at a certain pace, so choose the fastest feeling part of the song, probably the chorus, and make sure it doesn’t feel rushed. Use a metronome in practice to help you remember the right tempo afterwards.
Don’t over-arrange a song with lots of clever changes unless you make sure everyone writes it down, otherwise they’ll probably forget it and most of the congregation won’t notice the detail anyway. But do over-practice a song. Rehearse it more than you think is necessary to get it into everyone’s memory. A good place to start is by copying the parts from a definitive recorded version and go from there.
For the actual chart it’s a good idea to develop a simple system of notes that each instrument can write on to remember their specific parts. Make the format sequential, so you follow it like a side bar as the song progresses. It should have space to write notes for the intro, verse one, pre-chorus, chorus one, verse two, chorus two, chorus three, ending, and so on. Try not to overcomplicate it either. Complex charts can require the musician’s full energy to follow and not allow them any headspace for a meaningful expression of worship.
One of the great things about making worship music as a community is the option to interact and “feel” the arrangement develop as we worship with the congregation. Unfortunately one person’s Spirit-led bass solo can be another person’s most distracting moment ever. So it’s probably a good idea to employ a combination of charts and spontaneity.
Lastly, when using these arrangement tools, planned or spontaneous, try to create musical space, not just fill it up. Musical space isn’t like space in sports. Unlike soccer, you don’t always run into a musical space when one becomes available. Let it breathe. Think of it like a storeroom. You can’t create space in a storeroom that is already full. Musically that means if it sounds bad it’s probably too busy and you have to strip back the sound to make space. There may be too many musicians in the band or just too many people playing too much at the same time. Remember, not playing is an option. So create space, so you have room to let worship with feeling flow.
Before arranging a song:
- If using a specific arrangement, know which version it is. I’ve had interesting moments with musicians all playing different versions of the same song.
- Rehearse it more than you think.
- Have some kind of chart template that musicians can make notes on.
- Learn to copy instrument parts from CDs.
- Plan your songs with musical space in mind.
Andy Chamberlain is a Director of Musicademy and the presenter of the Musicademy Worship Guitar DVDs – students enjoy observing his varying hairstyles as the DVDs progress. Andy was trained at the Academy of Contemporary Music, has played at festivals such as Soul Survivor, New Wine, Spring Harvest and Spirit West Coast (US) and has worked with many worship leaders including Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Martyn Layzell, Vicky Beeching, Viola and Lloyd Wade.