A practical how-to guide to arranging a song

A practical how-to guide to arranging a song

How to arrange a worship song

We had an email recently from Mark Proctor:

“As a church we are currently in transition from an organ only church to having a music group.  Unfortunately none of us have any experience of arranging songs and every article/website appears to assume that it’s a full ‘rock’ band format that you’ve got and very little advice applies to our situation.”

As we spend a huge amount of time during the live training seminars we run talking about the unique contribution that each team member can make, no matter how unusual the set up of your band, we wanted to try and address some of these issues for Mark. We find that many many churches do not have the conventional 5 piece rock band. That’s one of the reasons we’ve done a course for orchestral instruments and it will also be an important theme running through our upcoming band skills DVDs (we’re currently in the process of planning these). With the orchestral DVDs we try and take the existing knowledge most of those classically trained players have and get them to put it into a framework where they play together without set parts, where at best they get a chord chart to work with and at worst they have to play completely by ear. In practice that of course is the space that most churches with orchestral instruments that want to do modern songs inhabit. In practice we get them to develop the idea of playing together almost like a backing vocal group where they are taking the notes from chords and blending with complimentary rhythms.

Let’s look at the art of song arrangement though.

Arranging a worship song

There are two ways to arrange; before you play the song or spontaneously whilst you are playing the song.

Spontaneous arranging

Let’s start with spontaneous arranging as its one thing we all do whether we realise it or not. Every time you play with other musicians you are creating an arrangement of sorts. Perhaps just not a very pleasant or well thought out one! The key thing to remember is the chord chart is NOT the arrangement so putting chords and words in front of your team and shouting “…2,3,4” doesn’t necessarily give them all the information they need.

In order to build any arrangement spontaneously we need to get an understanding of the different elements that make up a song’s arrangement. These elements include groove, rhythm, dynamics, i.e. how big or small the song sounds at different points, tempo, fills, harmonies and motifs which are the repetitive elements that add a sense of familiarity – think of the bass part in Lou Reed’s ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side’ or the lead line of ‘In Christ Alone’.

Did you notice I haven’t included melody? Melody should remain set whilst we build the arrangement around it, so lots of ad-libs and harmonies from the worship leader can be confusing for the congregation unless they are extremely musical.

Which elements can be changed?

Let’s take the three key elements; tempo, dynamics and groove.

You shouldn’t change the tempo unless it’s wrong in the first place or there’s a deliberate speed up or slow down as a song feature. Many people equate more exciting parts to playing faster and gentler parts to slowing down, but listen to any well recorded track and the BPM stays exactly the same. What you’re actually hearing change is the dynamics. So yes, change dynamics well and often to create different feels and moods. Think about how the lyrics make you respond. Do you want to shout or be quiet? Laugh or cry? Dance or bow down. Try to use dynamics to mirror those feelings with your music. Just make sure the whole band changes them as one unit. So how do we change dynamics? There are lots of ways to add feel to your playing. Play harder or softer, double or half your subdivisions, e.g. drummers play 16ths instead of 8ths or visa versa or play the same part higher or lower. Remember that not everyone has to play all the time. So pick your moments and make a statement. If you do start or stop, get in and out at the junctions of the song – verse, chorus, turnaround etc. If you miss one junction, get on at the next, don’t just start playing at random points.

What about groove? Groove is hard to define but it’s like the rhythmic accents that work with the pushes in the melody to form a repetitive and distinctive rhythm. This generally works through the whole song. You may add or subtract from that pattern to change your dynamics but it tends to stay there for the duration. It’s not just a drum thing either. Any instrument played rhythmically can help build the groove. So no, the main groove doesn’t generally change unless it’s a feature deliberately written into the song.

So if you are arranging spontaneously, listen to what everyone else is playing and try to fit in with that groove. If you haven’t got a full band compliment, try to ensure the available instruments cover all the necessary bases. So if there’s no drummer make sure the guitarist’s strumming pattern is really consistent or get the keyboards to cover the low end if there’s no bass. Also get each instrument to only cover one role and not step on another’s toes. So ensure the keyboard’s bass pushes aren’t clashing with the bass guitar. Maybe even tie the keyboard player’s left hand behind their back!

So as a band exercise, play a section of a song three times and each time try to change one of the following; the tempo, the dynamics or groove. See what works.

Planning arrangements in advance

A friend once said that there are in fact three approaches to arranging. Beforehand, during the song or wishing you had made an effort to arrange it after you have finished playing!

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 which doesn’t give enough information to arrange good parts for each band member.

As I’ve said, the 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 then it really will help develop musical maturity in your team.

For the planning element, try to make sure each of you 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 is often 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 all 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 and build up your muscle 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 etc.

Try not to overcomplicate it either. Complex charts can require the musician’s full energy to follow and not allow them any headspace for emotional expression.

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.

So before the 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 simultaneously.
  • Rehearse it more than you think
  • Write it down simply and make sure your musicians have it available as they play
  • Have some kind of chart template that musicians can make notes on
  • Learn to copy instrument parts from CDs

Lastly when using these arrangement tools, planned or spontaneous, try to create musical space, not just to fill it up.  Musical space isn’t like space in sports. Unlike football, you don’t always run into a musical space when one becomes available. Let it breathe. Think of it like a store room. You can’t create space in a store room that is already full. Musically that means if it sounds bad it probably means it’s 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.

What about the non conventional band?

To answer  the question about arranging for non rock band instruments, or a band without the usual set up of guitars, bass, keys, drums and vocals; every instrument regardless of genre has a place to fit into the spectrum of sound. In other words for an arrangement to sound full, there needs to be rhythm, harmony and melody. Those instruments also need to cross over to fill out the low middle and high registers. The trouble is most instruments played badly either all play in the same register with different rhythms so it sounds messy, or they completely ignore one area of the register e.g. The bass end so the sound is ‘thin’ or unbalanced.

The trick is balancing those roles so if you haven’t got a bass guitar for instance, what other instrument can you use to fill that space? Also where there are instruments that are capable of playing more than one role e.g. the piano, it’s making sure that it doesn’t cut across another instrument’s primary role, e.g. playing the melody when you already have the lead vocal doing that.