The DRESS Code: Better Church Music

Worship bands are incredible things. Volunteers sacrifice hours of their time to support the congregation in praising the Lord through song. On a Sunday it happens in countless churches, across multiple continents, in a number of musical genres. It’s phenomenal…

…and yet so many worship bands don’t reach their full musical potential. Don’t get me wrong; the quality of the music should never take priority over lyrics that are being sung or the ability of the congregation to participate in worship. But God deserves our best – whatever that looks like. Not only that, but the last thing we want is to draw any attention away from God with poor music. It might surprise you to know that by monitoring five simple areas in your band, you can dramatically improve the overall quality of your musical offering. I’ve taught it to older musicians and youth bands and the results are almost always astounding.

I call it the DRESS Code.

It’s an acronym for “Dynamics, Range, Excellence, Simplicity, and Sensitivity”.

Dynamics

Vary your team’s volume depending on the needs of the song. In music, dynamics refer to how loud or quiet a piece of music is played. As a worship team, always be aware of the lyrical content and adjust your volume accordingly.

Good use of dynamics can be achieved in two ways: by varying the loudness of the instruments themselves or by varying the number of instruments playing at once (or both). Don’t be afraid to just let the keyboard or acoustic play in quieter sections. Vocalists; if you aren’t singing the melody, don’t be afraid to sing away from the mic until you can offer something dynamically (eg. in the choruses or bridge).

Some other ways to make good use of dynamics is to use ‘builds’, where you gradually get louder during a particular bar or section. The shorter builds can punctuate sections and help clarify new sections to create musical interest. Longer builds can create a powerful sense of urgency and really emphasize the sense of declaration in the choruses. Though the length of the build below is not necessarily practical for smaller churches, it is a useful demonstration of how effective a build can be (starting at 3:33 to 5:52: notice that the drums are really the driving force of the build and use almost the entire kit to achieve this feel, before hitting a massive groove to create a sense of musical ‘release’).

Range

Just because your instrument has a 7+ octave range, you don’t need to use them all!

When you are playing in a band, you should really be aiming for a good ‘spread’ amongst the frequency spectrum. Put simply, the frequency spectrum is the range of notes from the very lowest to very highest and is measured in hertz (Hz). There is a particular range that humans can hear, and as a general rule, we want to try and achieve an even spread of sound across that range. For more detail on this, take this free music theory course). 

The point is this: just because your instrument has a 7+ octave range, you don’t need to use them all! There should be an even spread amongst the frequency spectrum with the various instruments. This creates a sense of clarity and cohesion.

If you have a bass guitar playing low notes, a piano player doesn’t necessarily need to hit those low notes too. If you have an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar, consider getting the acoustic guitar to play lower open chords. The electric guitar can play higher on the fretboard. Also, there is usually a reason why you don’t hear prominent instrumental riffs when vocalists are singing. The vocal melody and instrumental melody often occupy the same space on the frequency spectrum. This can result in things sounding a bit confused musically.

Excellence

It is obvious that if you do your absolute best, your overall standard will improve. For a worship team full of volunteers, devoting enough time to practice and preparation is tricky. However, it is essential if you want to the quality of music to improve.

As volunteers, it is essential to give appropriate amounts of practice time and preparation to your part before rehearsals. It is important that you give your best to God. As worship coordinators, it is your responsibility to make that job as easy as possible for your volunteers. It is important to understand that these volunteers are giving their time sacrificially and do not necessarily have the same amount of time as you do. By all means, have high standards, but lower as many hurdles to reach that point of excellence as you can.

DRESS Code - Woman worshipping

Simplicity

I once heard an amazingly wise statement one of my lecturers at music college: “It takes years of practice to learn to play less”. Often, it is not the complexity of the music that makes a great worship team. It is a group of musicians who play exactly what is necessary, and nothing more.

Bass players are often tempted to add fills and riffs to make their job more interested while they are playing, but sometimes all that is needed is a steady 8th note rhythm on the same note. Classically trained piano players are notoriously bad for over-playing: adding unnecessary rhythm, flourishes and even doubling the vocal melody. This is fine when the piano is a solo instrument, but in a band environment, it muddies the waters and takes away from the overall clarity of the band. Sometimes basic sustained chords are all that is required to sound great! Electric guitarists are often tempted to play big barre chords, when more often than not, only two or three notes are required. Keep it simple!

It takes years of practice to learn to play less

A quick note here. This is where it is important to remember that it is not about me. Or you. I repeat: it is not about us! Our job is to combine with the rest of the band to serve the congregation and give glory to God. If you want to be stretched technically, perhaps a secular band is the right place for you! By keeping things simple, we declutter the overall sound and cut through the noise. Try it! Trust me, your congregation will thank you for it.

Sensitivity

Finally, pay close attention to everything that is going on around you. At all times. The worship leader is responsible to gauge the spiritual atmosphere in the room and to lead accordingly. That might very well mean that the arrangement needs to change on the fly. Watch your worship leader carefully and trust their leadership!

Also be sensitive to the instrumental makeup of the team. Maybe the violin has a riff that the electric guitar would normally play. That’s ok. Be sensitive to what other instruments are doing and fill the space accordingly. This is something that comes with experience, but always be open to what the Lord is doing amongst you during a time of worship.

The DRESS CODE

The DRESS Code is something that is easy to remember and can have a huge impact on your worship teams. Experiment with these 5 areas and I’d love to hear from you if you have any success!

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