Playing Music is a very collaborative undertaking. With an acoustic, bass, couple of electrics, drums, keyboard, and a gang of singers: things can get cluttered fast. Like I mentioned in a previous blog, worship is a team sport. The problem is, most worship musicians don’t totally understand the different roles to be played on the team. You might think “I’m an acoustic guitar player, Isn’t that my role?” Generally you could consider that a role of a band, but the roles that I am referring to go deeper than just the choice of instrument. One instrument can do many different things, and serve many roles. Likewise, if you’re not careful, your instrument can clutter up the work of someone else’s role. It is critical to understand the different roles in music and learn how you can support these roles in different band makeups. To better help us understand this a little better, I present to you “Cake Theory”
Generally there are five unique parts of music. A thoughtful musician should have a firm understanding of each part and what impact his/her parts have in creating or reinforcing these pieces. The final outcome of the music is a culmination of these distinct parts. A band should choose when to build up and tear down the parts of the cake to create an effective atmosphere of worship. In the next blog I will analyze the song “Inside” by Jared Anderson and we will dive deep and give a practical sense of the various parts and how the parts they chose created the unique landscape of the song. But for now lets get a fundamental understanding of the parts.
The Cake body- Rhythmic Foundation
Rhythm is the foundation of the band and I would call it the 1st tier of the cake. All other aspects of the song sit upon this foundation. The rhythm of a song generally consists of the tempo and syncopation that give the song its feel and grove. While generally it is most obviously the drummer’s job to form this part of the cake, many instruments can fill this role: guitar strumming, bass fingering, piano hammering, etc. Because each instrument is capable of this role, an unorganized band can clutter things up in this sphere pretty easily. It is not necessary for everyone to be playing the role at the same time. If it is a guitar driven song, then the keyboard player should feel free to fill other roles and not play rhythmically and vice versa. The rhythm of a song should be clear and bold. Each player who chooses this role should work together in order to not muddy things up. The acoustic and electric guitars should play strum patterns that complement the drums and vocals as well as not interfere with each other, and the bass play parts in coordination with the drummer that support the foundation. Too many instruments supporting this tier can sound terrible, too and the band will sound unconfident and unstable. Most successful modern worship bands use the Bass and Drums to fill this part and let most of the other instruments focus on another part.
The 2nd part of the cake is another foundational concept of music, and it has to do with the chord structure of the song. This layer is the base icing that is used to cover the cake and serve as a backdrop for the decorative icing. The chord structure is the basic chords on which a song sits. The chord progressions paired with rhythms of the song create the basic form of the cake. Chord progressions at their simplest form consist of the order in which the different chords are played and their duration. This tier is pretty simple but it is fundamental to have the chord progression of a song built so the decorative icing and message have a place to rest. While it is not necessary for every instrument to be playing the chord progression all the time, before an instrumentalist thinks about adding to any other layer he must insure that the rhythm and chord progression layers be fully developed before working on the other aspects of the cake.
The 3rd fundamental portion of the song is the lyrics. Arguably, this is the most important part of the cake in the context of worship. The vocals parts as a whole have a priority in the worship context, and all other aspects of the cake should be crafted to serve as a foundation or accent for them As an instrumentalist it is very important to understand how your instrument’s sound affects the vocals, and then create space for them in worship. While of course there is room for instrumental solos, tags, etc, they usually serve to create a dynamic buildup or teardown for the vocal aspects of worship. This is a critical point of understanding for the modern worship musician. The message is the most important thing.
After the foundational aspects of the cake are finished the band can start to add decoration. The main decorative icing of the cake is what consists of the theme of the cake that gives it uniqueness. It contrasts the flat icing and complements the underlying cake tier. The solos and hooks of the song fall into this category. Guitar/piano solos, bass lines, unique drum intros etc. The melodic portions of the song give the cake its unique look. The cake often times is presentable with just the chords rhythm and lyrics, but the melodic decoration gives the song its unique character and definition. When you hear a guitar intro or bass line to “Salvation is Here” you instantly know what song it is. On most cakes the decoration ends where the writing starts, and that is usually the case with worship music, unless the decoration is specifically crafted to mix with the text. Usually it is best that one, maybe two, instruments fill this role at a certain time, unless the solos are designed to mix with each other. There is nothing worse sounding than 2 electric guitarists sloppily soloing over each other.
The final portion of the cake is the accents. These are the parts of the song that supplement the main portions of the song. These are the parts of the song that are rarely rehearsed that an instrumentalist will add to give the song flavor. Counter melodies, harmonies, and off beat parts fit into this category. They differentiate themselves from the decorative icing in the fact that they do not give the song uniqueness but serve only to contrast and accentuate the other parts of the cake. Often times thes parts are adlib and serve the context of the moment. These counter melodies and harmonies are clearly distinguishable in most recordings but they are not bold or constant enough to be included in the decorative icing part of the cake. An electric guitar player might play the same simple supporting line in many different songs. The power of the accent is in its precision and strategic use. A cake with too many accents looks amateur and cluttered, but the skillful use of accents can make a boring cake come to life. An accent does not draw attention to its self but serves as a contrast to make the other parts of the cake more vibrant. Use accents sparingly with taste. If you don’t have taste, borrow it from a recording or put more emphasis in the other parts of the cake. Sometimes there is no need for accents.
As a worship musician it is important to know what role the part you are playing is filling in the big picture. We must learn to listen and prefer others, and then choose to play parts with purpose. A simple guitar strum can fill multiple roles. It is important to be aware of your impact, and play parts that stay out of other people’s way. If the other band members have already accomplished a piece of the cake, then take a step back and listen for a part in the song to where you can add. In most worship bands you will have one, maybe two people doing each role. Usually when you have more than that doing a certain job, it turns into clutter. Let us work to be excellent in our worship before God.