Why do I need to know how a song is built? Why do I care?
Because knowing how songs are built enables me to:
~ Learn it without “playing it on repeat 18 times”
~ Rehearse it as a band without just “playing the whole thing 8 times”
~ Know what I can change in it so it’s still fresh and worshipful after singing it 28 times
~ Encourage the congregation to sing more (without asking for it)
~ Adapt it to my band…(especially if my electric guitar player still thinks solid state is king)
~ Heroically decide not to play it when I realize (before Sunday morning) that my rhythm section (that carries that particular song) just doesn’t have what it takes to pull it off (yet)
So first, what are the elements that make up a song? Melody, Text, Form, and Accompaniment (which is harmony, rhythm, tone, tempo, and dynamics). There are things in a song that you can rework and there are things that if changed, make it a completely different song. Text, Form, and Accompaniment can all be modified to different degrees. Melody is the DNA of a song - change that, and it's no longer the same song.
We’ll start with what is most flexible, Accompaniment:
You may be able to change the chords and still sing the melody as written, but you may need to change what harmony you can sing with it. You can change the rhythmic feel of the song, and it may still work – like laying a rock feel, or a jazz swing, or a pop groove on it. You can play the song with only an acoustic guitar or a full band, but you'll need to play it differently to achieve similar energy, feel, or even style. You might use instruments the original author never dreamed of using. You can play the song slightly faster or slightly slower (about ±10 BPM unless you're doing a drastically different groove). You can change the key (thankfully). You can play different voicings on the instruments, use capos, and chord inversions. It may work to add or subtract harmonies. You can play a really quiet version or a REALLY LOUD version (sorry for the shouting). Ask “Would this song make sense if sung a cappella?” or “Would this song work without a drummer or a strong lead guitar player?” Then change at will…the sky is the limit. In fact, next rehearsal, try playing the same song once with only the players on the left of the stage, and then once with the ones on the right (and yes, the drummer has to pick one or the other). How did it work? What didn’t work? What did you learn?
A song may be written V1, Ch, V2, Bridge, but you can totally start on the Bridge if you'd like. You don’t need to sing both verses. You can sing just the chorus of a song. I’ll often repeat whichever verse I’m feeling like God wants to highlight in that moment. I recently led Here I Am To Worship and repeated the second verse twice (without going to the chorus) and went right into the bridge because it seemed right to be singing about God coming to earth “Humbly You came to the earth You created, All for love's sake became poor” …and then go right into “I'll never know how much it cost…” So it’s Outback Steakhouse here…no rules, just right.
Sometimes, you can slightly alter the text and still keep the song as it is - personalizing a pronoun for instance. You might change a chorus on the third time around from "God is great" to "God You're great" or change “He” to “You.” But if you change it up too much "O praise Him, He is holy" sung as "I praise You, You are holy" doesn't really work. But be careful here, purists may harpoon you after the service (in love, of course). Some of us feel like changing the “sloppy wet kiss” in How He Loves to…any of the dozen substitutes for the original lyric ruins the song. Some of us can’t stand the original. So alter with taste and tact…and good reason.
But melody? Nope. Don't change that. Every note and every rhythm is foundational to that song. It's the only thing that separates it from every other song. Think of it as its DNA or fingerprint. If you don't sing it true to the original, your singers will have a hard time following you and the congregation will certainly have trouble following you and singing along. (this may very likely be on of the main reasons they don't sing if they aren't!)
Now I know, I know...you’re artists just expressing yourselves. Good for you. You are, but you’re servants first. Just like you should “Worship first; Play second” you must be a “Servant first; Artist second.” There are lots of ways to be creative and artistic, but altering the melody is not one of them. (unless you’re teaching it as a new song)