Separating song from genre

Two stories:

  1. Christmas carol service, doing “Silent Night”. I had set it on mandolin with a very simple strummed guitar background, very few chords, very gentle and folksy. The keyboard player kept twitching and saying it wasn’t “Christmassy enough” so we had a chat, and he set up a nice big church organ sound, and played it: “See, Christmassy..!”
    I then said: “No, that’s just a big church, for Christmassy it needs a Salvation Army brass band.”
    Long pause, followed by: “Let’s hear your mandolin again” and then: “Sorry, but that’s really nice, let’s do it that way.” It’s a really good song.
  2. Pentecost service, in the local park, all the churches represented, 2000 of us together, music led by Salvation Army brass band. In uniform. All good and fine, the hymns were nice, then I check the set list (I was on sound) and see:
    “Blessed Be Your Name” (Redman / Redman)
    My heart sinks. “What fresh *insert strong word* is this?” I wonder…
    But it was absolutely fantastic! They’d got a really good arrangement and it sounded superb and we sung it really well. It’s a really good song.

So, “Separating song from genre”: what exactly does that mean?

Most of the time we encounter new CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) songs as part of a recording or video or big church conference, and there’s a certain “sound” to it all, like U2 meet Coldplay in an elevator and they decide to share their music with a shopping mall.

Most of the time we encounter old “Traditional” songs in a small church with a few elderly people and played a bit lumpy on an out-of-tune piano or old organ, and there’s a certain “sound” to that too.

To bring traditional into a modern setting we’d hire a top line organist or keys player, maybe a choir and brass section, do some cool arrangements, let Chris Tomlin write a catchy “refrain” for it, and off we rock and roll!

To bring CCM into a traditional setting we, err, give the sheet music to said elderly organist who most certainly won’t have heard or even looked into the original, won’t be familiar with the genre, won’t have played anything like it… or we set up a speaker and play the CD of the full HillVationCulture band from “Let’s Spring into The One Royal HOP” conference.

And there rests the evidence for the prosecution.

So how *could* we do it?

Get to what the song is about musically and work to set it to what you have *now*.

  • You have ‘cello and harpsichord – do it *well* on that. (NOTE to reading instruments: don’t play the tune if people are singing. Musicademy’s Orchestral Instruments course will help them with what they should do).
  • You have electric guitars but no drums – do it *well* with that, listen to old blues records, there are plenty of examples of how electric guitars can sound great with no rhythm section. (NOTE: Don’t let people play who can’t keep basic time or insist on clapping on 1 & 3).
  • You have drums and percussion but no keys or bass – go “tribal” on it. (NOTE: Without cultural misappropriation, so no fancy shirts and hats please).

Look for left field recordings of the songs

Try live lounge, acoustic session, meditation – we’ve got a CD of Vineyard songs in the “Orchestra & Sinatra” genre and it’s lovely – and play those at times when it could be reasonably expected (coffee time for example) so people get to hear the songs without the “racket!” that goes with it. (NOTE: Not during communion, please).

Train and encourage the musicians in each other’s disciplines and listening

Hanging out with our organist has done wonders for both of us. He is learning what the songs can and should sound like which is often very different from the written music, I am learning about what sounds and textures are available and how to lead a congregation with hymn music

Look for churches that do it well and ask for their support

Either they’re not actually doing it that well, or they’ll be happy to help. Arrange some “Exchange” programmes, sit in with their team for a bit, share some training, live with their experience and share yours.

Bring it all back to why we sing

God is worth it, and worth us doing our best to *serve* in music.


This has been my church experience for forty years, and letting the songs be good on their own without the “genre” of their original setting is really important. It can also show that some of the “new” songs aren’t actually very good. It also works for demystifying old hymns too – there’s some really poor ones out there :)

Blessings, Simon.

Simon wrote this article as part of a discussion about this article on how to transition from traditional to contemporary worship styles of music. If you’ve not read it yet we would recommend a look.

Worship Band Skills from MusicademyIf your church is struggling to even get to the ‘U2 meet Coldplay in an elevator’ sound let alone explore other genres then can we recommend the Musicademy Band Skills course (the graphic at the top of this article is taken from that course which you can download, stream or get on DVD.






Simon TimperleyAs a child of the sixties coming of age in the late seventies Simon discovered both God and guitars and began adult life firmly committed to both. Playing in both bands and church Simon became a worship leader, church administrator, semi professional musician, engineer, and teacher.

He currently works in electronics while training as a Methodist local preacher, he remains passionate about music and Church along with motorcycles and model aeroplanes, and is developing an on line persona as a poacher turned gamekeeper “Christian group troll-meister”.