April 29, 2019

This month I would like to share some thoughts about arranging music. As many church musicians know, the challenge of leading music effectively can sometimes be the instrumentation of the worship team or ensemble. Obstacles can arise when sheet music for a choir or other ensemble requires specific voices or instruments that your church may not retain. On the other hand, contemporary worship recordings often display many instruments, voices and effects that are difficult to duplicate in a live church environment. Let’s discuss some ways to get around these issues.

When arranging music for an ensemble that may lack parts or instruments required by the score or recording, remember that the vocal melody is always the top priority. Regardless of the end product the lead vocal part must always be heard. The primary practical objective of leading music in the church is to provide a stable example for congregants to follow. If the melody is not presented clearly, we have missed the mark.

Prioritization beyond the vocal melody may be argued at length. I would propose that chordal accompaniment from at least one instrument would be the next objective, but some congregations may require something different. If the accompaniment in the score or recording you’re working with includes instrumentation that you don’t retain, the obvious response is to generalize chords and rhythms. 

However, remember that capturing the appropriate “feel” of the music is important. If you can duplicate the basic rhythms of the original along with the correct harmonies, this would be the best first step. Including the bass line and instrumental melodies or “signature” parts are helpful as well. Beyond that, some discretion may be used. In the event that you’re working with an accompaniment score for piano or multiple instruments that requires some unattainable complexity, generalized versions can sometimes be found online — particularly from songselect.ccli.com. There is a subscription fee required, but this resource may be regularly useful to you and your congregation.

Beyond basic accompaniment, supporting vocal parts such as harmonies and responses are another priority. These parts can occasionally be challenging to arrange for depending on how many singers and parts you have in your ensemble. Supporting harmonies are typically not imperative, but remember that most tonal music features parallel and/or diatonic thirds above or below the melody. An inversion of a sixth is acceptable, but parallel and open fifths and fourths are highly atypical.

Top 3 Arrangement Priorities
1. Vocal melody with a stable example for congregants to follow
2. Chordal accompaniment from one instrument and capturing the feel of the music
3. Supporting vocals, harmonies and responses

By: Ryan McClouth, Assistant Professor