Calling all church pianists! (Or wannabe church pianists.) A HUGE part of a church pianist’s role is to provide appropriate background music during different parts of the service.
I first learned how to play chords and songs while playing the piano in a church youth band.
Over the years, the skills I learned in that setting have served me well in so many other settings. So it’s worth learning, even if you don’t play in church and have no intention to.
Church piano is different because when you play background music in church you have to be REALLY aware of the setting and the mood. You are NOT the star, and you don’t want to be a distraction.
So here are 3 ways to play background music at church.
This is the easiest and most common way to fill space. The most common times you’ll be required to play background music will be after a set of music and someone comes to do some speaking or prayer.
The simplest thing to do is to keep playing the chords of the most recent song that was sung. That way the transition is seamless and the mood that was building during that song can continue through the speaking or prayer time.
Remember to be quiet and sensitive to the situation. Play the chords, but don’t play the melody. Playing the melody might be a distraction and you want people to be focused on what’s going on at the time, not trying to remember the words of the song they just sang 🙂
I find it’s best to keep things simple. You can play the chords as a whole, or even as broken chords. You can play them in the same octave range as the song, or you could take them up an octave higher to create a light-sounding and airy feel.
If you do this, remember to play even softer. Our ears are better at picking up those higher notes, so they “sound” louder even if they’re not.
This is my top tip for playing background music in church. But it’s not the only option you have…
What I mean by this is the 4 chords that are so commonly found in popular music (both Christian and non-Christian). They’re the 1-5-6-4 chords and you can use them to create beautiful, tasteful and intricate compositions.
That’s because these 4 chords ALWAYS sound nice when they are played together. It doesn’t even matter what order you put them in. They could be 1-5-6-4 or 6-4-1-5 or 6-1-5-4. The choice is yours.
By the way, if all those numbers are freaking you out, read our lesson on The Number System. It’s pretty awesome and might just change the way you think about the piano!
The most important thing is choosing the correct key signature to play these chords in. If you can stay in the key of the most recent song (see tip #1) that is best because it creates a beautifully smooth transition.
I find it helps to practice these progressions in a variety of keys. The most common key signature I seem to find in modern worship music is D major. G major, C major, and F major are also quite common!
These are not suspicious-looking chords (get it?). But they are my favorite.
“Sus” is short for “suspended” and the term comes from the traditional form where one of the notes of the chord was “suspended” or carried over from the previous chord.
These days, it just means we replace the 3rd of the chord with either the 2nd (to create a sus2) or the 4th (to create a sus4).
Here’s an example in the key of D major using a D major chord.
To create a Dsus4 we replace the 3rd note of the D scale (the F#) with the 4th note (the G) so it looks like this:
And for a Dsus2 we’d replace that 3rd note (F#) with the 2nd note of the D scale (E). So the chord would be D-E-A.
These chords are my favorite way to play background music at church because they can go on forever. You can alternate between the sus2 and sus4 and even play different notes (from the 1-5-6-4 progression) in your left hand.
It’s an effective and tasteful way to play background music that you can end at any moment.
It helps to have a few of these tips up your sleeve because some moments in church will be spontaneous, and it’s always good to be prepared.
But other times might be planned, especially if there’s a planned prayer time after a set of songs or an altar call moment at the end of the service.
For these planned times, it’s helpful to talk to the worship pastor or lead pastor about what they would like you to play during those moments. And if you know beforehand, practice!
It’s the best way to make sure that your background music is appropriate and adds to the moment. Because the right music at the right time can do amazing things.
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