Musical Transitions in Worship

Transitions are important.  Not because they show off how tight the band is, or how creative the music leader can be, but because a good transition can keep your community continuously in an atmosphere of worship.
When I first started playing in worship bands, we payed no attention at all to how one song ended and the next song began.  It was pretty common for us to end a song on an emotionally high note, and then to pause for about 45 seconds while someone retuned their guitar or while the worship leader gave the drummer a quick rundown of the song.  It feels like the difference between cruising on a highway and being stuck in stop-and-go traffic.  Every time we began to lose ourselves in worship, we’d come to an abrupt stop and have to start all over again.  Good transitions can help keep the community in an attitude of worship and keep the focus on God.
Here are a few of my most common transitions from one song to another.  This is by no means an exhaustive list – in fact – if anyone has other thoughts on transitions, I’d Love to hear them!

1.    End one song and start the next – If songs are in radically different tempos and keys, sometimes the best thing to do is just to end one song and start the next one as smoothly as possible. We practice those transitions in rehearsal and who ever is in charge of starting the next song knows that it is their responsibility to set the tempo and keep worship flowing.
2.    Go straight into the next song – If songs are in the same key and same tempo, we’ll just go seamlessly into the next song. No break, no pause, just straight into it.
3.    Modulate the closing riff to the key of the new song – Lots of songs have an iconic instrumental riff that keeps repeating throughout the song.  If both songs are in the same tempo but keys that are only a half or whole-step apart, we’ll often close a song by playing the riff in the old key, the immediately play it in the new key, and then as the riff ends go straight into the next song without any break.
4.    Modulate closing chorus – If our new song is a half or a whole step higher, and the old song ends with several repetitions of the chorus, we’ll modulate the last chorus up a half-step or whole-step to the new key.  We never modulate down a half-step or whole step…for me modulating a chorus up heightens the emotional tension even as it helps us make a smooth transition, but modulating down sounds clunky to my ears and loses emotional steam.
5.    Tempo change (Fast to Slow) – If we need to change our tempo from a fast song to a slow song, we’ll often end the fast song by playing our chord progression without anything to subdivide the beat.  Everyone (including the drummer) hits the chord, but doesn’t play anything else until we all hit the next chord, and so on. So for example if our song is in 4/4 and chords change each measure, we just playing whole notes. This give the feeling of putting on the breaks and slowing down the old song as we move towards the tempo of the new song.  Usually we’ll do the progression twice to give us a little more time to make the tempo change gradually.  If the songs are in different keys then we might play the progression an additional time or two but in the key of the new song. Then move seamlessly into the next song, since the tempo and key have been set already. If it’s going to take a few seconds too long to do this, one of the vocalists could speak briefly over the transition to keep people engaged and focus them back towards God.
6.    Tempo change (Slow to Fast) – To move from a slow song straight into an upbeat song, we often end the slow song with a big build up with cymbal swells followed by a sharp crack of the snare drum on the beat one.  Everyone cuts of right on the downbeat except for the lead guitarist, who immediately launches into the new tempo on the downbeat that everyone cuts off on.  He plays 16th notes of the first chord in the new tempo for about two measures and then the whole band comes in and joins him (or her).  The effect reminds me of an old Calvin and Hobbes comic where they would go careening of a cliff in their wagon ad are suspended in midair for a moment, just before crashing back down to the earth.  The sharp cut off of the band and the jump start of the new tempo by the guitarist (who doesn’t change chords while scrubbing away at those 16th notes) seems to create this same kind of weightlessness.  For a moment, the guitar is just suspended on its own, and then BAM, the wagon hits the ground and we’re off into the next song.

Those are a few of the things we do to help move people smoothly from one moment in worship to the next.  I’m sure there are more though.  What does everyone else do to keep worship flowing from one song to another? I’d love to hear! 

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