Organizing Songs for the Flow of Worship
1 Corinthians 14:39 NIV
… everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
I have heard it said that the role of the artist in society is to bring order out of chaos.
I believe it. Music itself is order out of chaos.
- For the composer, out of all the random cacophony of life, a tune emerges, a set of notes that makes sense.
- Then, from the swirling dictionary-storm of comprehensible variations of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, a poet pulls words for the tune that make sense.
- At that point we get our hands on the song and match it up with other songs to form the liturgy our people will pray, confess and declare during a worship service that, hopefully, also makes sense.
- Together the composer, the poet, the arranger, and the worship leader bring order out of chaos.
This orderliness in worship is a chief concern of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians and to us. There are so many things we all bring to the worship service:
- our musical preferences,
- the musical tastes of the congregation,
- the spirituality of both the congregation and us, and, of course,
- the demands and expectations of the pastor.
Chaos indeed, but here also is opportunity.
A man in my choir in Wichita, KS back in the early 1980’s was an engineer at Boeing. At chaotic moments before a rehearsal or service when everybody was busy trying to get it all together, Fred was often heard to say, “Well, we have achieved chaos!” I suppose that is the most positive way of looking at it, but whether we inherit it or achieve it, chaos will confront us. Each confrontation with chaos is an opportunity to bring some sort of order out of it.
The worship leader has the important responsibility to select the music of worship for the people he/she services–they manage the worship repertoire of the church. It is a daunting task not to be lightly undertaken. Why? Because the music of public worship carries the message and mission of the church into real time in the real world. These songs also become the liturgy of daily private worship of congregants.
In this endeavor, each week the worship leader comes face-to-face with the chaos of all the songs he or she might use in worship. (I am speaking primarily to the free worship traditions, those without prescribed themes and scripture readings.) The “contemporary” worship leader listens to the latest recordings of worship leaders and worship bands. A few of the songs capture the contemporary worship leader’s heart and he/she wants to use them in church as soon as possible. The “blended” worship leader also listens to praise and worship music and he/she feels drawn to certain songs while keeping the hymnal in mind. The “traditional” worship leader looks to the hymnals he/she uses and takes advantage of each specialized index: keys, themes, tunes, meters, scripture settings, etc.
Finding the Worship Order (Theme)
As each worship leader plans, what he/she is really doing is this: attempting to find the order the Lord wants for the service he/she is planning. Whether spoken or unspoken, the worship leader is acting on a theology that the will of God for that service can be found and used as a guide for us to bring a service order that God wants out of the chaos of the church’s repertoire and traditions. This is really an out-working of Jesus’ words to the woman-at-the-well; we must worship “in spirit and truth.”
I call this the-truth-the-Spirit-wants for that service.
Ordering the Sources
To facilitate the artistic/spiritual discovery of what the Lord wants in every service, we need to bring order to our song sources.
- The traditional worship leader usually has this done for him/her by the publishers of the hymnals the church uses. If not, the time it may take to construct a key index is well worth it.
- The rest of us need to organize known and potential songs into lists. Some people will make lists by tempo or style or function.
- In my view the most important list we can make is to organize songs by keys. If the worship leader has made a master song list, it needs to be organized by keys rather than alphabetically by title.
- Planning Center helps us keep accurate records of the songs and service orders we have used.
Key Flow: Musical Gravity
Years ago in a classroom at Wichita State University, I was listening to a lecture on Mozart. Dr. Lee was asked this question by someone in the class: “How was Mozart able to write music that flowed seamlessly for hours at a time?” Dr. Lee’s face lit up the way a good teacher’s face does when a student asks a welcomed question. “He used the circle of 5ths,” was the answer. For me it was like a bomb going off in my spirit—“That’s the way worship can flow seamlessly from song to song!”
The term “circle of 5ths” is a bit inaccurate. Since 4ths and 5ths are inversions of themselves, this is really the “circle of 4ths and 5ths.” This is a phenomenon in music that God himself has given us. Chords in a song flow in such specific pathways, away from the I chord and back to the I chord, that each chord is actually named for its relationship to the I chord. (The Post-modern use of 4 chords with no specific pathways between them brings a random element to chord flow.)
Warning! Music Theory Ahead!
Here’s how the circle of 4ths and 5ths works:
- The dominant chord (the five chord; V) leads us back to one (I). When the V7 is used there are two leading tones demanding that we go on to I.
- The two-minor chord (ii7) leads to the five (V7) which leads back to the one chord (I) and so forth.
Keys also flow in just this way between songs.
- Songs in C can lead very smoothly to songs in F if the song ends on I and the new song starts on I.
- Songs in F lead to songs in Bb and so on around the circle.
Progression and Retrogression
When planning songs the chaos of keys needs to be conquered by the skillful use of harmonic and key PROGRESSION–traveling along the circle and the avoidance of RETRORESSION–going backwards or jumping around in the circle of 4ths/5ths.
I plan smoothing flowing song sets by staying in the circle as much as I can.
- My first song provides me with a key, let’s say good old C. I look for the next song in that same key. If I cannot find one to continue the thematic and stylistic flow, I start looking for a song in the key of F, the next key in the circle.
- Going from C to F is smooth and seldom distracts from the words of praise, worship and prayer we are singing. In general music flows up in key.
- Modulating up a ½ step or whole step is simply a matter of using the V7 of the new key.
- To go down a whole step, or a ½ step in key between songs is a retrogression and a jarring experience.
I have even seen songs list that jump a tritone (the note exactly between octaves) between songs as in D to Ab. Try it and you’ll see why medieval music theorists called the tritone interval the “devil” in music.
A Musical and Spiritual Discipline
If this strikes you as mechanical or technical rather than spiritual, let me assure you this is a spiritual and a musical discipline.
- God made music to flow this way; mankind just discovered it. (See J.S. Bach and “The Well-tempered Clavier.”)
- When I let the music flow from song to song along the circle of 4ths and 5ths, I am aligning myself with God’s order.
- I know some of you keyboard players might be saying, “Hogwash! I can modulate from any key to any key! Just listen to this…” And this is no doubt true and often brings the audience to their feet to applaud your musicianship. But playing for worship is not about how clever we can be with modulations. It is about how skillful and sensitive we can be in facilitating the flow of songs so the worship is never interrupted by the music.
- Modulations should enhance worship, not distract from it.
A Mighty Flow of Grace
I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River. As soon as I was old enough to drive I would to go down to the river on Sunday afternoons. I would find a place on the asphalt jetties the Corps of Engineers had constructed on the western bank to contain the mighty Mississippi River. I watched with amazement as a river one mile wide surged toward the Gulf of Mexico. In Northern Virginia I used to drive out to Great Falls Park and watch the Potomac leap the continental plate between the mountains and the coastal plain. In both cases, no one had to make the river flow. Gravity pulled the Mississippi to the gulf and the Potomac toward the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic. I want the worship I lead to be like that, pulled inexorably, sometimes quietly and sometimes with a roar, to its destination.
To me, the circle of 4ths and 5ths is musical gravity. We can make water flow up hill—with pumps–man-made machines, not God-created marvels.
I have experienced worship that felt like it was being pumped and that is not a good feeling. Nobody spends the afternoon dreaming by a pumping station. No one builds a park to allow people stare in wonder at a machine pumping water where it doesn’t want to go. But a river, now that’s different. No one can throw a switch and shut it off. It roars or surges around the clock on its mission to the sea, obeying the pull of gravity.
The River of Life
One of the most vivid pictures of worship in the Bible is the River of Life.
- We see it in the Psalms (1:1; 36:8-9;46:4-5) Ezekiel 47, the gospel of John (4:13-14; 7:37-39) and in Revelation 22.
- Ezekiel 47 and Revelation 22 are parallel passages that tell us much about the flow of worship and the effect of the River of Life.
I will mention one thing: the destination of the River of Life.
- The Mississippi flows to the Gulf, and the Potomac flows to Chesapeake Bay.
- The River of life flows from the Throne of God to the Dead Sea, a scriptural symbol of the needs of man.
- Think of it—the River Life flows from the Throne of God and of the Lamb, through our songs of praise and worship, to the healing of an injured and abused humanity.
So, let’s put away our pumps, no matter how powerful and beautiful they may be and let us step into the flow of The Spirit of God.
To bring order out of chaos, spend the necessary time to organize your songs by keys. When you plan your worship, connect your songs tonally as well theme-wise. When the worship leader submits to the pull of musical gravity, the chosen songs will serve to reveal God to His people. A song of mine says it this way:
A Healing Stream
Words and Music: Stephen Phifer
There’s a healing stream from the Throne of God.
Enter in, Enter in.
Pain is swept away in this healing flood.
Enter in, Enter in.
1. We enter in when we praise Him.
The water flows in the worship of Him,
Through us, a healing stream,
It’s the power of His presence!
2. We enter when we obey Him.
The waters flow in our service to Him.
Through us, a healing stream,
It’s the power of His presence!
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved