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Why Are Song Arrangements Important?
First of all, what’s a song arrangement?
It’s not the order in which songs appear in your worship set list. That’s the set list order or song order, and I talk about that in Episode 8.
The arrangement is the order in which you play the parts of the song. For instance:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
- Verse 3
It’s not good for the band or the congregation if you just play whatever part of the song “feels right” at the moment. There are definitely times where you go off script and do something spontaneous in a song. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But to go off script, you need a script in the first place. That script is your song arrangement.
A planned song arrangement keeps the band in sync, keeps you from making split-second decisions while leading worship, and helps the congregation know where you’re going.
The good news is that you don’t always have to create your song arrangement from scratch. About 90% of the time, I use the same arrangement as the recording. But whether you decide to copy the album or create your own arrangement, you’ll need to keep some elements in mind to make sure you’re delivering a great experience to those who are worshiping.
1. Tailor the arrangement for your worship band and congregation
One reason I change the song arrangement is because I don’t have the necessary pieces on my band that Sunday or at all.
For instance, if there’s a 5 minute guitar solo in the song, but I have no lead guitarists that Sunday, I have to cut it. Some churches have no lead guitarist ever, so guitar solos are never an option.
But it goes beyond what pieces you have available to you. If your congregation is like a deer in headlights when there’s a 30 second instrumental part, maybe cut it or make it really short. Start with just a two-measure solo and see what happens. After a few songs with this, go up to 4 measures. It will take your people a while to get used to instrumental breaks in worship.
Additionally, your congregation might not want to sing an 8-minute song.
There are a number of popular 7-8 minute songs in the worship world right now. You’ll want to arrange the song to fit the length that your congregation is used to. That might mean cutting a verse, chorus, or bridge, or instrumental part.
2. Create dynamics
About the worst thing you can do to a song is start off with one intensity and keep it there the whole time. People lose interest and zone out about ½ way through the song.
So how do you remedy this?
You assign a dynamic level for each part of the song.
For instance, you could do a big intro, come down for the first verse, bring it up again for the chorus and come down slightly again for verse 2. Then, it’s all in — everyone 100% — for the bridge, then keep it there for the last chorus, then out.
This creates tension and a moving, living, breathing song.
To hear this modeled, just turn on the radio. Every song you hear, worship or otherwise will do this.
There are various ways to make a song big or low during certain parts (see the next tip about adding creative sections).
Keep in mind that this might take coordination. Not all instruments can play throughout the song. You might start out with just a piano, then bass and drums come in. Guitar might not come in until the big bridge!
Really dissect the recording of a favorite worship song and listen to what instruments are playing where, and how loud each part is. You might be surprised at how much it changes throughout the song.
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3. Add Creative Sections
There are countless ways to make the song your own. Your style and your band members can always bring your own flavor to a song by adding creative elements.
Acapella means that the voices are by themselves. All the instruments drop out. This creates a powerful feeling because it’s so different than the rest of your set, assuming you have a few instruments in your worship band.
It gives a chance for the congregation to be heard. A lot of times, the instruments are loud enough to drown out the audience. It’s nice for the band and the congregation to hear those voices ringing out.
It also gives your band a chance to work on specific harmonies.
Let one instrument take a solo for a few bars
This works well if you have a great instrumentalist on the band. You can let him or her take a few bars during a big part of the song.
Just make sure they are skilled, and that they’ve practiced what they are going to do.
Repeat a part of the song with just drums and bass
This is a lot of fun. It’s a little like the acapella part where the vocals keep going, but you add drums and bass as well. This gives a verse, bridge, or chorus a great rock-style or funky interlude.
Add a full stop, a break, then come back in on a chorus
There’s a natural break between verses and choruses, or when repeating a chorus.
You can use that break to completely cut out instrumentally and vocally. Then, everyone comes back in together as you re-enter the part of the song.
This takes coordination, but it’s a great effect.
Create your own introduction or outro
Each recording will come with a beginning and an end. In musical terms, this is called an intro and outro.
You can get creative with how you start or end a song. Start with just a drum beat, the bass line, or an electric guitar lead line. End the song on a dead stop, or musical interlude. You can really keep the congregation engaged by thinking up different ways to start and stop each song.
4. Create a mash-up
Some songs are too short. For these, it’s fun to mix in a totally different song as long as it fits. Look for songs that are in the same time signature and a similar tempo.
Also, you can use just the chorus of a certain song and mix it in with another similar song.
If you have two songs in E, both around 80 beats-per-minute (BPM), try playing half of one song and going straight into the next one as if they were one song.
These mash-ups bring new life to old songs. Try it out!
Some Final Thoughts About Creating Song Arrangements
No matter what you do with the song, be sure to make notes of your arrangements.
They are easy to forget, and as the worship leader you are also the band leader. Band members will look to you if they forget how you do the song.
Feel free to write on the chord chart or on a separate sheet of paper. In any case, write it down so you don’t have to arrange the song again later.
And always practice the arrangement at home outside of the rehearsal time. You don’t want to forget your own arrangement in front of your band when you’re supposed to be the leader.
In this podcast episode, we looked at 4 tips to create better song arrangements:
- Consider your worship team and congregation. Don’t add parts of a song you can’t do well or that the congregation won’t engage with.
- Create dynamics with volume and different instruments.
- Add creative sections like acapella parts, breaks, and drum-only sections.
- Cut sections and repeat sections to make the song longer or shorter depending on your overall set.
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Recently I did a mashup of Lord I need You into the traditional gospel song I need Thee every hour. I did all of Lord I need you up to 2x the bridge. Then a slight pause just to change meter from 4/4 to 3/4 (no key change). And into the 1st verse of I need Thee every hour, and ended with repeating the chorus of I need Thee every hour 2x. The congregation, used to a mix of contemporary and traditional songs, responded well to this mashup and it worked well since at that service I was the only instrumentalist so changing meter was not an issue on keeping all on the “same page” pace wise.
Great idea. Changing meters is a great way to mix things up.