This is post number 40 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry. These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance. I welcome discussion on any of them.
Reflection #40: Contemporary worship leaders miss an opportunity to add meaning or flow to their worship sets when they ignore the option of modulating keys in the midst of certain songs.
A few weeks back, I wrote a post suggesting there were several things contemporary worship leaders could learn from the Gaithers. Space did not allow for a longer list (and, to be truthful, this one didn’t come to me at the time of that post), but as I’ve reflected on the Gaithers’ ministry of late, and listened to a bit more of their late 70’s and early 80’s oeuvre, I’ve been reminded of a musical technique largely ignored in the contemporary worship music (cwm) I hear these days: the mid-song/near-the-end-of-song modulation–something Bill Gaither modeled to perfection in his arrangements for the Bill Gaither Trio.
Let’s acknowledge this right up front: You might not have the kind of musicians who are conversant enough with the Nashville Number System to handle changing keys gracefully. You certainly need a certain caliber of musician to pull this off. Moreover, adding a second key to a song in your set, even if you only play in that key for a third or a fourth of the time you play in the primary key, requires twice the work of prepping charts and rehearsing the band. On certain Sundays, you might simply not have the personnel or time to make this happen. But when you do, here are three reasons to consider adding the periodic mid- or end-song modulation to songs for congregational singing.
1. Modulating mid-song can give a lift to repetitive material the congregation has been singing for a while. Unlike some of my generation, I am not a fierce advocate of avoiding repetition at all costs, and I don’t make jokes about “7-11” contemporary worship songs. (As one of my grad school professors noted, folks who complain about repetition in cwm might have a tough time in heaven, having to listen to the four living creatures and their day-and-night/never-stopping rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy.”) Still, some songs do run the risk of becoming a bit bland near the end, so why not help the cause by taking the energy up a notch with a modulation? The classic example here is Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord”–which gets a lift from A to B at the 3:12 mark in this version. Another familiar tune that often features a modulation is Chris Tomlin’s “Forever”–which modulates from G to A at the 3:54 clip in this rendition.
2. Modulating mid-song can lend emphasis to the building of a narrative. Sometimes, especially in songs that are more strophic (i.e., verse-chorus) in composition, modulating for the final verse can give more weight to, well, weightier content. An excellent example of this dynamic can be found in Keith and Kristyn Getty’s “The Power of the Cross”–which modulates to C from B-flat at the 4:05 mark in this arrangement, just as the lyric testifies most firmly to the cross’ power, with lines like “through Your suffering I am free!” and “Death is crushed to death; life is mine to live!” Strong lyrics–especially if they serve as the culmination of a narrative that, even in the relatively short span of a congregational song, tells the essence of the gospel–often benefit from the kind of emphasis a modulation brings.
3. Modulating mid-song can aid flow by placing the end of one song in the same key as the beginning of the next. Nothing is more jarring to even mildly musically sensitive ears than ending a song in one key and starting the next in another without so much as a hint of harmonic transition. Modulating the last verse or chorus of a song–even if it hasn’t become too repetitive or doesn’t benefit from a narrative-emphasizing lift–in order to put it into the key of the next song in your setlist can help make for a more smoothly flowing set.
If you embrace this concept periodically, yes, it will create more work for you, and, yes, it will challenge the musicianship of some of your band members. But with the ubiquity of online resources like CCLI’s SongSelect (one example of many) that can put charts in different keys with a click of a mouse, there’s every reason to employ the occasional mid-song modulation in your worship sets, particularly when doing so would accomplish one of the three worship-enhancing goals above.
The Lord be with you!