Posted by: worshipguitarguy | August 9, 2006

Theme and Variation: A Page from Classical Music

musical.jpgI’m a huge fan of classical music.

… I know I have some explaining to do.  This is a worship guitar site, so why I’m bringing up music written by a bunch of wig wearing dead guys… especially when they wrote pieces that take half an hour or more (*cough* Messiah *cough*) to perform?  After all, many of us lose people if our songs hit the six minute mark.  How can we practically apply classical ideas to worship?  (Outside of insane guitar virtuosity of course.) 

Well, there is something we as worship guitarists can learn from these composers, it’s a principle called theme and variation.  It’s real simple, don’t worry, and it applies to us.   In crafting music, classical composers often presented a musical theme at the beginning of a piece, then subsequently placed variations or changes of that theme throughout the piece.  These changes create movement or flow, while at the same time keeping something consistent that listeners recognize. 

In modern worship music, we’ve got the theme part down.  Most modern worship writers, (Tomlin, Redman, Hughes, etc.) intentionally present catchy themes that people pick up on quickly.  The problem comes when there’s no variation… it’s almost like watching grass grow for five minutes… we all know how exciting that is.   Now I’m not suggesting changing the melody, consistency there is good.  What I am suggesting is varying the instrumentation, and guess who’s best able to do that… us.

One of the best places to present variations is in the verses.  If a song has two verses, look for ways you can change your playing between the first and second, (or third) verses.   On a fast song for example, I may play the first verse with delay filled arpeggios that fill the spaces between the lines of the vocals.  During the second verse, I may play whole note open chords with a tremolo effect.  I could also drop out and let the bass and drums carry the verse.  Or to accent what they’re doing I might just strum the rhythm of the song while muting with my left hand, creating a scratching effect.  (In essence, I’m becoming a percussion instrument.)    

In choruses, you can get away with playing the same parts over and over, since they’re more of a corporate refrain.  But if you repeat a chorus 2 or 3 times in a row, you may want to find ways to build it from beginning to end


Good Examples of variation in worship songs:

Salvation is Here
Hillsong United
Album: Look to You
Verses one and two are back to back.  Notice verse 1 is carried by the rhythmic jangly guitar part, and as a variation in verse 2, the second electric comes in playing aggressive octaves.   

You Never Let Go
Matt Redman
Album: Passion Everything Glorious
The first verse is driven mostly by the acoustic, with a swirling pad behind it… (I believe it’s created by a guitar and wah used as an ambient effect.)  The second verse has an electric with an octave style effect which answers the lines of the verse. 

Unchanging One
Todd Agnew
Album: Reflection of Something
Verse 1 is acoustically driven with the electric providing the high fill notes.  Verse 2 has overdriven power chords panning back and forth between the left and right channels.   



  1. One of the other really effective ways to add some variation is in the bass-line. Here’s a few ways:
    1) In a very basic variation, try to simplify the notes played. Skip the passing chords and let other instruments play those.
    2) Try playing ‘pedal’ lines. Pedal is another classical term that describes playing a bass note one-fifth above the root / primary key. Eg, if a song is in C, try playing G bass notes. It adds a lot of tension and release to the song (and is great for 3rd verses).
    3) Mix up the bass line for chords. If you’re moving from an E to a B, try and E to a D# bass, or an E to an /F# bass. Even cooler, if the chord on the chart is the fifth of the root / primary key, try playing the fourth. Eg, if you’re in the key of E and the chord is a B, try a B with an A bass for a new color.
    4) Play ‘up the neck’. Bass players who feel comfortable playing lines in higher octaves a rare, but it gives the bass a ‘tenor’ pitch and adds a great deal of color. Great for 1st verses.

    Thanks for posting these tips, I really enjoy visiting the site!

  2. Great comments Rodd!

  3. I agree here…. The bass is perhaps the most defining instrument in terms of rhythm and even melody lines. As a guitarist you should play close to your bassist and depending on which verse, can even change parts for a differing sound.
    Half of the battle for dynamics is beaten by using each other!

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