Monthly Archives: April 2015

Improvisational Musical Roles in Worship


Since moving to Wiltshire I have been involved with a worship band linked to the local team of Anglican churches. The band provides worship music for around 40 people, once a month, in a rural hall. The band is made up of, electric violin, voices, keyboard, fretless bass and trombone. There are four of us in the band, I double on bass and trombone, and the keyboard and violinist double on voices. This is a fairly unusual line up, but we manage to make it work through sensitive listening and careful blending of our sounds.

The music we play is common to a modern church setting, songs written by Christian artists such as Lou Fellingham, Martin Smith and Chris Tomlin. These are essentially contemporary folk songs, with simple melodies, words and repetitive chord structures. We also play traditional hymns such as, ‘How great thou art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’. Many of these were also folk songs. Christian composers in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries took popular melodies and added Christian words and harmonic arrangements. ‘How great thou art’ was originally a Swedish traditional melody and was arranged into a hymn by Bogerg in 1885. ‘Amazing grace’ was an original composition written by Newton to illustration a sermon in 1779. As a band we make new arrangements of these hymns, changing the style, tempo, metre and harmony. This is what we call ‘putting our own spin on things’, taking traditional music and making it new.

Improvisation underpins our musical approach, and we value highly, flexibility and spontaneous response in worship. Although this approach is not unique, I am aware that these sort of processes in worship settings are not very often analysed or written about. So I thought it would be interesting in this blog to attempt to write about and analyse the musical roles.

Our aim is to provide a potential space for the congregation to engage with spiritual and social processes (Winnicott, 1971). We use the music to create an atmosphere, model and lead people into this space, and invite them to contribute. Contributions can take on a variety of guises and be anything from spontaneous prayer, songs to sharing personal stories. There is a core population that tend to come every month, and a shifting population which consists of people who are curious and visit occasionally. In general I would expect people to come from the traditional churches for a different kind of worship experience. The congregation is made up of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds, and a wide geographic area. This is mainly to do with the nature of Wiltshire, being a wide-spread rural county, and few churches in the area. In a way, what happens each time, is that a community is created for that moment, that evening. It’s similar to Monson’s (1996) idea of creating a community in jazz performance. Each time a performance takes place a community is created. This is because in spontaneous music making, everyone who is present is contributing to the whole, and this applies to both worship music and jazz.

In an evening we usually have around eight to ten pre-planned songs, which we play in two sets. What I would like to write about now is the musical relationships and roles. There are many other aspects of the worship which I could focus on, but I will leave that for another time and blog. The following is a summary of the musical roles:

Keyboard and Vocal

  • Musical Lead
  • Leading harmonically
  • Key changes
  • Melodic Motifs

Vocal Two

  • Underpins and supports lead vocal
  • Provides backing vocals
  • Responds to vocal melodic motifs
  • Initiates melodic motifs

Electric Violin

  • Underpins melody
  • Pushes music forward rhythmically
  • Responds to keyboard melodic motifs
  • Provides an alternative timbre
  • Spontaneous melodies

Vocal Three (same musician as electric violin)

  • Underpins melody
  • Provides an alternative timbre and higher register
  • Backing vocals

Fretless Bass Guitar

  • Underpins harmony
  • Grounds, holds, contains
  • Sometimes underpins melody
  • Sometimes initiates new melodies or motifs
  • Responds to keyboard, violin, voices melodic motifs

Tenor Trombone (same musician as bass)

  • Underpins melody
  • Pushes music forward melodically, rhythmically, dynamically
  • Responds to Keyboards, voices, violin melodic motif
  • Alternative timbre
  • Sometimes pushes tonality into atonality or dissonance
  • Spontaneous melodies

The keyboard player provides the lead and gives direction to both the congregation and musicians. Although some of this is pre-planned often the worship moves into spontaneous actions. The keyboard player is a trained organist and follows in a long tradition of improvising. Musicians such as C.P.E Bach, Kollmann, and Vierling all wrote treatises on the art of keyboard improvisation, many of whom used it in sacred settings (Berkowitz, 2010). Melodic motifs are created from the pre-composed melodies, and these are played in-between the verses. The motifs are a significant part of the musical language of the group, and all the musicians pick up on them. This results in a tapestry of short melodic phrases which get repeated throughout the band in different timbres, this works as an invitation to the congregation to sing spontaneously. In a recent meeting, we also utilised suggested word phrases which were flashed onto the overhead screen. This gave a traditional congregation a guide to suggested words for spontaneous singing.

The second vocalist supports and provides backing vocals. The violinist provides a melodic emphasis and pushes the music forward. The electric violin and tenor trombone blend their sounds together, and complement one another. I play trombone in a very soft, lyrically cello like way. In addition the bass provides a grounding, holding containing function. The music therapist Wigram describes this musical role as, ‘creating a stable, containing music that can act as an anchor to the client’s music’ (Wigram, 2004 p. 91). So the bass sometimes ‘acts an as anchor to the congregation’. When I play I switch between trombone and bass, switch. This requires making a choice about what instrument to play. Choice making is always a significant part of creating spontaneous music (Sawyer, 2008). The songs are often in safe guitar keys such as G major or D major, and often on the trombone I push at the boundaries of these keys, creating dissonance. The feeling I have behind this, is that it is ok to challenge the congregation, to draw them out of the safe predictable music, and into something more creative and unknown.

The result is an interweaving of musical roles that creates something bigger than the sum of its parts. Monson (1996) writes about the connections that jazz musicians make through playing music together. I feel we have the same journey. Through creating this spontaneous music over a long period of time (around 7-8 years), we have developed interpersonal connections that go deeply. Making spontaneous music with others bypasses verbal language, and somehow you come to know people in a very personal way. It’s also interesting that as a band we have developed our own verbal language for musical events, such as, ‘going off on one’ for leaving the structure of the song entirely. This phenomenon has been written about by Wilson and MacDonald (2012) who described how jazz musicians and freely improvising musicians create their own verbal language.

The hope behind all this musical activity is that we can create a potential space for worship, and that we and others might be able to engage in a spiritual journey that is edifying and healthy. I think a key to this is entering into a musical process, that in turn leads to a social and a spiritual process.


Berkowitz, A.L. (2010) The Improvising Mind, Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monson, I. (1996) Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sawyer, R.K. (2008) Learning music from collaboration. International Journal of Educational Research, Vol 47 (1), pp. 50-59.

Wigram, T. (2004) Improvisation: Methods and Techniques of Music Therapy. London, New York: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Wilson, G. B. and McDonald, R.A.R. (2012) The sign of silence: Negotiating musical identities in an improvising ensemble. Psychology of Music, Vol 40 (5), pp. 558-573.

Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality. London, New York: Routledge.

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