Leading "worship songs" from piano

Some hints and examples

To enable contemporary styles of church music to be used by pianists in small churches.
Target audience
those enthusiastically wanting, or being reluctantly persuaded, to lead singing of songs in contemporary styles in small churches.
Musical styles for congregational singing, attainable by most parish churches, capable of being led by relatively inexperienced people.
Specialist styles, requiring masses of electrical equipment for Christian "rave" events (which, curiously, bear many similarities to a Cathedral service).

The Golden Rule:

We, the music leaders, are there to serve the congregation in their worship. This translates into giving them confidence in their singing. All technical considerations at the piano (or other instrument) are subservient to this.

Opening assumptions and recognitions

  1. We, the church, need to engage with secular society and, it necessarily follows, with its secular music styles. The principle of using contemporary music styles is vital to the average parish church in its work, worship, service and mission. (Was it any different for Bach or Handel?)
  2. Much modern church music is of poor quality lyrically and musically, and of somewhat restricted theological outlook. (But hasn't this always been the case for congregational song?)

Part of our task is to acknowledge and reconcile these.


  1. Modern church music can, and should, be successfully and advantageously used regularly by all local churches in their work, worship, service and mission.
  2. For traditionally oriented lead musicians, the use of modern music enhances their skills, with positive feedback for our hymn-playing on the organ.
  3. For modern-based lead musicians, it can widen an appreciation of more traditional styles.

We will see that the "performance" of modern church music is, in some senses, radically different from that of traditional hymns, but is, in other senses, remarkably similar.


Some features of bad leading, all of which apply equally to worship songs and traditional hymns:

  1. Hesitancy, lack of rhythm;
  2. Long gathering note;
  3. Over-strict (non-gathering) note;
  4. Poor verse links;
  5. Poor introductions (cadence points).

Bad playing is unmusical playing. And unmusical playing is that which fails to give the congregation a secure lead. Good leading may not be the same as a concert-perfect performance (classical or rock).

Almost all the points in the list above are to do with bad flow or rhythm. Modern music styles tend to emphasise "flow" between its verses (its components). So bad flow becomes more obvious, but so more easily corrected. Addressing this can feed back positively into our leading of traditional hymns.

Stylistic variety: Though there is variety in the traditional hymnbook, there is a vastly increased range of musical styles in modern music. We should become familiar with these styles, so that we can better lead our congregation. We can do this predominantly by listening to the style, then experimenting in our practice times. Getting to grips with a particular song is perhaps primarily finding our own way of expressing its style, in order comfortably then to lead it.

Learning styles: As with traditional piano practice, there is a place for "studies". Christopher Norton's Microjazz and Microstyles books are worth looking at. The children/teen hymnbook Sound Bytes (Stainer & Bell, 1999) has a variety of contemporary styles, usually well captured in its careful editing. Very important is simply doodling and playing around at the keyboard at home.

Accompaniment: "by the book" is "out of the window". Book accompaniments often differ for a song and are sometimes desperately hopeless anyway! We need to find our way of doing them.

Tunes: the printed notation is often at variance with what people know. We need to recognise and resolve this in each particular case.

Many pianists are familiar with the traditional graded exams of the "Associated Board". In the late 1990s, the AB introduced a contrasting Jazz Piano Syallabus. The material for this is well worth investigating.

Examples across styles

  1. Lyrical song: Be still for the presence of the Lord
  2. Rock and roll: Praise him on the trumpet (variety of possibilities)
  3. Jazz chord voicing: Jesus shall take the highest honour
  4. Gospel harmony: We have come into his house
  5. Blues/gospel: What a friend we have in Jesus (arr. David Peacock in "Hymns for the People")
  6. Blues: Kyrie (Ghana, in "World Praise")
  7. Celtic: Be thou my vision arrangement in SH2000:11.
  8. Scottish: O God, you are my God alone ("Psalms of patience...", 63, Iona Community)

See the huge stylistic variety. And that is without touching rap, hip-hop, dance, garage, grunge etc.

Knowing the writer

  1. Graham Kendrick: often weak musically. Needs us to help him out of tight spots. Getting better since his early days. Many styles (compare "Shine, Jesus, shine" with "All I once held dear"). Writes for guitar, retrofits to piano, with varying success. (To ponder: in the MPC:162 arrangement, what contribution to the song's success might be due to the arrangement by the pianist David Peacock?)
  2. Brian Doerkson (e.g. Purify my heart), Chris Bowater (e.g. Jesus shall take the highest honour): Write tunes carefully, and harmonies pianistically (possibly to the dismay of guitarists). Worth studying.
  3. Dave Hadden (Living under the shadow of his wing, He's given me a garment of praise): Words tend to be triumphalistic. But he can write a catchy tune and solid harmonic progressions.
  4. Noel Richards: Again, somewhat narrow theology. Lyric writing, tune writing often not of the highest order. Like much modern music, it emanates from a very capable stand-up performer, but writer and editors may give inadequate thought to congregational singability.

Knowing the books

  1. Songs from the Psalms had music editors with good theory knowledge.
  2. Spring Harvest, by contrast, is assembled by audition from CD/tape performances. Finicky, unrealistic details in tunes reflect "solo performer" mindset: arrangements are sometimes poor.
  3. Mission Praise is a very mixed bag. Some good arrangements (e.g. From heaven you came), some less adequate (e.g. You laid aside your majesty).

Some case studies

  1. Be still for the presence of the Lord (MPC:50): Chord structure is ascending fourths: classical and solid.
  2. Rejoice! (MPC:572): Syncopation: In chorus, the "Christ is in you" tune looks complicated on paper. But note that it is simply syncopated crotchets. Contrast verses: crotchets now on the beat.
  3. Only by grace (SH97:104): Gentle syncopation. Note where syncopation is deliberately stopped: between chorus and verse (near top of 2nd page), on "who will" (1/2 way through 2nd page).
  4. Jesus shall take the highest honour (MPC:378): Contrast first section (ends "give you glory now") with second ("for all honour..."): colouration of chords, direction of bass line, tune syncopation.
  5. We have come into his house (MPC:729): Potentially alarming profusion of accidentals and "odd" chords. But think "black gospel", and look at clean, stepwise inner parts: it begins to make sense.
  6. All I once held dear: Contrast accompaniments and chords in the chorus in NMP:1 and SH97:2.
  7. Great is the Lord: Contrast everything, including tune, in (early) "Songs from the Psalms:48C" and MPC:199.
  8. You laid aside your majesty: Contrast SH97:159 with arrangement in MPC:795.

Exercise for the reader: Why is My Jesus, my Saviour (Shout to the Lord) so popular? Musically, what are its strong points? What its weak? Consider these in relation to composition, arrangement, and structure. If you were writing, arranging or editing it, what would you change? Why? And how?

Practical suggestions

Simplify. Very often we don't need all the printed notes. So long as we can "feel" the particular style, we may often be able to lead with a stripped down accompaniment.

We don't have to play the tune! Our job is to provide a secure lead. The major components of this are rhythm and harmony. The congregation and the leading singers know, and are already singing, the tune. So if there are too many notes on the printed page, consider leaving out the tune.

In most of the song we are simply supporting the congregational singing. Identify the key turning points, and the places where we need to provide a strong, indicative lead: that is where our leading role must be prominent.

Indeed, we can sometimes get by with just a bass line and occasional chords. Experiment at home:

  1. Sing alleluia to the Lord (MPC:601): Reduce to tune and (simplified) bass line. Then to bass line. Then to nothing: simply sing it unaccompanied.
  2. Shalom (Sound Bytes:83): Reduce to bass line, then just to repetitive tonic (doh) note (D)
  3. Rejoice! (MPC:572): Reduce to tune and simplified crotchet bass line.
  4. O Lord our God (MPC:507): Disobey "flowing" instruction and make more lively. Beware highly irregular words in verses.

Elements of styles

Think about the role of tune, harmony and rhythm, and how they map onto the various parts of a song. Rhythm is vital to most modern styles (indeed, though less "up front", to traditional styles). In any given song, know what is providing the rhythmic drive, what is providing the harmony, which components are sustained, and which more percussive.

The "right way": In contrast with classical music, the concept of "the right way" hardly exists. Listen to Eric Clapton's song "Layla", as famously known from the 1960s, then to his performance of it on his "Unplugged" CD. It is hardly recognisable as the same song.

Listen to some of the better quality secular pop music. Example: CD "Medusa" by Annie Lennox (Royal Academy of Music trained) and arranged by Anne Dudley. Note the different frequency ranges covered by different instruments, and their arrangement to avoid muddying and interference. (Organists might then note the similarity to use of pedal and of non-8' stops.)

Towards some conclusions

Modern music is often quite lax with regards to using music theory. Yet paradoxically, for those of us approaching it from a traditional piano-lesson background, one of the most useful things we can do is to get to grips with basic chord theory.

Old-style piano teaching was intent on creating the technical perfection of the concert platform. But this ran the risk of suppressing our own creativity and imagination, even innate musicality.

By contrast, modern music styles start from the emotional aspect of music, and appeal to the innate musical ability latent in all of us. Few of its listeners, who also comprise our congregations know any formal music theory, but they have an appreciation for, and sheer physical enjoyment of, music.

Good practitioners of modern music end up creating music that is reasonably good, according to the theory. Yet most of them would claim to know little theory: they just "do music". So cold, academic theory and "just jam it" experimenters, end up at roughly the same place, though by different routes.

Don't try this at church (until you've practised at home)!

Get to know some basic chord theory, and recognise how it applies across all keys. For example in a major key (say, C), what are the three major chords? the three minor chords? the "never-used" chord? What chord very often precedes the main (tonic) chord? Now try it for D (then E, etc.) and note how the answers resemble each other across keys.

Experiment. To what chords can you add a seventh (major or minor)? A ninth? Get to recognise the sounds of different chord types (major, minor, seventh, suspended, inversions). What chord sequences work well? What things do good bass lines seem to do? How do good inner parts work?

Doodle. Sit at the piano with no sheet music in front of you. Pick out tunes. Try chord sequences.

Arrange songs: Open the book to a song (a simple one!) you know well. Ignore the printed notes. Instead look at the guitar chords and try to play those (e.g. "C" will be some combination of the notes C, E and G, with a C in the bass). Try then to sing in the tune. Perhaps also play the tune.

Fifth column: doodle by adding a high fifth (in key C, a high note G). Example to try: Give thanks with a grateful heart (MPC:170).

Minor the major: in rock and roll, try sliding onto the third of a major chord from its minor (in C chord, catch Eb before sliding it onto E). Example: Praise him on the trumpet (MPC:558) whose tune itself embodies this idea.

Mind the gap: As you progress, consider filling the gaps between sung lines, to maintain movement. For instance, reduce right hand activity during sung lines, increase it between the lines.

Source books

Adapted from training material written for the Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee music sub-group.