How Do You Teach an Inconsistent Melody?

A friend recently emailed me and expressed a dilemma he was facing when teaching new songs performed by an artist who varies the way he or she sings the melody. My friend asked:

When do we go with the lead sheet, and when do we go with the CD melody?  And when do we go with what is simple and consistent and when do we go with what is sung on the CD?

I’ve faced the same dilemma. While I’m grateful for many of the new congregational songs that have emerged in recent years, they’re not always sung in a way that makes it easy for a congregation to pick them up. Phrases are elongated in one verse and not the other, melodies are changed, and sometimes the melody becomes hard to identify or unsingable by a normal congregation. Here are a few of the thoughts I consider when figuring out what to do:

1. How important is it for the church to sing this song?
Not every song written by a “worship artist” should be sung by a congregation. Maybe it’s just for listening.

2. Is there a lead sheet I can use as a reference?
Sometimes music publishers help us out by publishing a lead sheet. If the recorded version differs at points with the lead sheet, I feel the liberty to use the recorded version in places if it fits the lyrics better and allows for more natural expression. But at least I know what they were intending.

3. Which version of the melody is more natural?
If one of the verses is more “artistic” in its inflection, I’ll probably go with the simpler version, unless I think the interpretation accents the lyric in some way.

4. How well is the song known?
If your church uses CDs to learn songs, rather than hymnals or written music, and the song is well known, you might be able to teach it with the variations as it’s sung on the CD.

6. Should I come up with a new version?
Sometimes an alternate version of the recording will serve the congregation best. An example for us is the song “Before There Was Time,” by Caedmon’s Call. The form of the song isn’t ideal for congregational use. The verses are slightly different, the choruses run right into the second verse and bridge, and the bridge is pitched high. But the song celebrates God’s knowledge of his before time, a theme we don’t often address. For the verses, we went with the most natural melody, ended the chorus clean each time, and made one of the harmony parts on the bridge the main melody.

6. Do I have a plan for teaching this song?
There’s a difference between singing a song for the first time and singing it for the tenth time. In most caes, when we’re introducing a song, a few principles are helpful . The sound engineer should have the volume of the vocalists louder, the instrumentation should be sparser, I might mention that we’re learning a new song, and even take time to have the congregation repeat a verse before moving on.

7. Do my vocalists know the same version of the song?
If you have multiple teams, this is worth checking out. I can’t expect the church to learn the one melody if our vocalists are singing different ones.

This discussion does highlight one of the differences between a song that is congregational and one that isn’t. Even though people can learn difficult songs through repeated listenings (most rock concert prove that), writers can serve more people by writing melodies and singing them in such a way that it makes it easier for people to learn them, not harder.

Additional thoughts welcome.

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8 Responses to How Do You Teach an Inconsistent Melody?

  1. Adrian Reynolds November 4, 2008 at 12:40 PM #

    Thanks, helpful comments, as always. As for lead sheets: sometimes I wonder if the advent of computer music has not helped us? Songs that, two decades ago had to be engraved by hand tended not to include complex syncopation, even if this is how they were sung (leaving the simpler musicians to cope admirably). Now, scores are often set straight from a keyboard input and the final product looks much more complex than it needs to, i.e. even lead sheets can leave us feeling a little bewildered!

  2. Alan Gerling November 4, 2008 at 3:16 PM #

    Thanks for the great thoughts. Being in a church that has both traditional and contemporary services, I find it helpful sometimes to distill a song down to a simpler version of the melody and rearrange it into hymn form. This allows me to teach the same song to both services. I find that often when I do that with a new song, I end up rearranging the lead sheet to incorporate some of the things I did to the melody to simplify. This really works for songs like “Praise the Father, Praise the Son” on Tomlin’s new CD.

  3. Isaac Downing November 4, 2008 at 4:51 PM #

    Thanks! As always, I’m blessed by your wisdom.

  4. greg November 5, 2008 at 8:13 AM #

    At first, I thought this was going to be a theological-type post, using the metaphor of an inconsistent melody or something, but thanks for the very practical advice! We’ve done changes similar to how you worked Before There Was Time and as long as I’m consistent with the changes, I’ve found the congregation catches on pretty quickly.

  5. Kendall November 5, 2008 at 10:11 AM #

    Thanks for addressing some real-life issues in teaching new songs. My highest musical priority in teaching new songs is to make them as accessible to the congregation as possible, so that maximum participation can happen from the outset. I find that I need to transpose down most contemporary songs, and I am grateful for online sources that allow me to do that. After all, we’re not all tenors and sopranos. If the people can’t reach the notes, they just won’t sing, no matter how theologically rich the lyrics are.

  6. Jim Pemberton November 6, 2008 at 11:20 AM #

    Very practical observations. One thing we sometimes do when introducing a new song is to have the choir use it as an anthem a couple of times. After that, the congregation has started to become familiar with it and is ready to sing along.

    As for using different versions, sometimes after the congregation is familiar with a version we will intentionally use a different arrangement just to keep it fresh.

    One other thing we do where verses may be difficult for the congregation is for a soloist, worship team or the choir to sing the verses and have the congregation join in on the refrain.

  7. mike passaro November 6, 2008 at 12:07 PM #

    Great post, Bob! As a (somewhat) young worship leader who plays guitar and drums (I think I can syncopate…), there is a tension between what seems natural for me and other musicians and what is natural for a congregation!

    I think the section in your book on the Four categories of worship songs. It is particularly helpful to think through that grid to determine which category a song may fit into! (…don’t use, could use, PRIVATE use, should use…)

    It seems that many of the difficult songs could be categorized as excellent “private/personal use” songs, and may not be the best fit in attempting to serve the whole!

    Thanks for all you do!

  8. Wes Crawford November 7, 2008 at 10:49 AM #

    Great stuff, Bob. Worship leaders who are not considering these kinds of issues need to ask themselves whether their main goal is performance or leading.

    I think in this age of recorded music being our main way of discovering new congregational songs it’s also helpful to remember that recording artists and congregational song leaders have different goals in mind–and that’s alright. If you bought a CD, and a song on it had 4 verses and the singer sang all four exactly alike with no variation, you’d be asleep by the end of the song. But that doesn’t mean that kind of variation is a good idea when leading a congregation.

    By the way, our congregations probably confuse these two arenas as well, so as always, shepherding is needed. (See the archives of this blog for loads of help!)

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