The Music Schop is a resource for worship musicians and pastors. Song analysis of popular worship songs, theory lessons, reviews of worship resources, and tips and tricks for drummers, keyboard players, guitar players, bass players – the entire band. Written by Chris Schopmeyer.

Do You Know The Song? Succeeding at the Improvised Sport of Worship Music (Part 2)

A good rule of thumb: when playing for a church or an artist, the expectation is you arrive able to play it like the record until told otherwise.

 Photo via:  123RF

Photo via: 123RF

But how much like the record? The last post ended with acknowledgment that knowing the song falls on a continuum. This post will establish a baseline to start from.

The Essentials

  • Melody and lyrics
  • Chord changes
  • Motifs & riffs
  • Groove

Let’s break these down.

Melody and Lyrics

Singers: learn the melody. It is frustrating to hear a worship leader alter the melody of a known song. You’re not being artistic, you’re just distracting the audience.

Chord Changes

This one is probably the most obvious. I’ll make two observations: 

  • Don’t assume the changes will be the same when repeating a section
  • Take note of alternate bass chords, like E/G#. Acoustic player, it matters that your low E string is ringing when playing E/G#! 99% of people will not recognize this as a mistake, but it will muddy the mix when played with a bass player. 

Motifs & Riffs

“Like A Lion” is a very popular song right now (regardless of whether or not you love or loath the Newsboys version). The opening guitar motif (or lead part) has become a critical piece of the song. 

The piano intro part on Hillsong Live’s latest release “Cornerstone” is another major example of a motif or riff that occurs throughout the song. Insanely simple part, but critical. (Note to classically trained or generally bored pianists: keep it simple.)


The audio clip below is possibly the most extreme example I can give. 

I haven't given the melody or lyric, yet you know the song. In this case, the groove has become as critical as the melody.

Drummers, the keys to the groove are most often found in the kick drum pattern. This is the foundation of a song and a primary area where drummers will get lazy. You can often get away with faking it, but you'll leave people wondering why the song doesn't feel quite right. 

Other Tips 

Think the Song Through in Sections

Go through each section of the song and note what your instrument needs to be playing (or more importantly, not playing). For example, drummers should note the basic kick pattern for each section of the song. 

Give Special Attention to Intros, Interludes, and Outros

These are your high exposure moments. You can get away with murder in the middle of the chorus. Make sure you nail the beginning, interludes and end of the song. 

Note the Shape of Phrases

Paul Baloche's recording of "Our God Saves" features a 10-bar guitar solo. I can't tell you how many musicians in our bands have dropped a bar here and gone back to the pre chorus early. Know when the song breaks free from typical four and eight bar phrase lengths (in this case not just one extra bar, but two). 

Ask Your Director

When in doubt, ask your music director or worship leader what parts he/she cares about. For example, do they want the solo just like the record or are you free to improvise? 

On some levels, determining the essential parts of a song requires intuition and good taste. Yours will continually be refined with experience and a lot of listening. I hope this post gives you a head start. 

Question: Have I left anything out? What do you think are the essential pieces in knowing a song?