Shadowlands and Songs of LightQuick note for fans of C. S. Lewis and/or U2 before the article begins:

When life’s sorrows bring us into shadowlands, we need the joy of Christ to restore our strength. We tap into this joy by nurturing a deeper longing for God. Shadowlands and Songs of Light: An Epic Journey into Joy and Healing takes you on a quest for joy and a life-changing longing for God.

Written by a C. S. Lewis expert and a skilled composer, the book explores 18 beloved C. S. Lewis classics, from Narnia to Mere Christianity, and 13 spiritual principles behind the art of songwriting, as seen in 13 studio albums by U2–all to answer one question: how do we experience deeper joy in our relationship with Christ during times of sorrow and trial?

Shadowlands is available to pre-order at Amazon or ChristianBooks.com. If you pre-order a copy, the author will personally email you with a thank-you note and a copy of his upcoming e-book devotional “Devotions with Tolkien,” which uses J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic “The Lord of the Rings” and Scripture. (This is all on the honor system: simply pre-order Shadowlands, and then send an email to shadowlands2016 (at) gmail (dot) com letting the author (Kevin Ott) know you’ve ordered it, and he will contact you.)

Text LIGHT to 54900 to get a preview of Shadowlands and Songs of Light.

***

This articles isn’t just about Christian music being boring, it’s about any genre of music and how a universal technique known as orchestration serves to make any style of songwriting and music production more interesting. Christian music, because it’s a smaller community than the monster-sized secular industry, tends to have a more homogenous sound across the board, and this bores people sometimes. But whether you write CCM or not, here are five ways to apply the general principles of orchestration; composers have used these guiding truths for centuries to give their musical ideas more life:

1. Understand the Meaning of Tone Color

Tone color, or timbre, is the way a particular instrument sounds — the character and quality of its sound. A bass guitar thumping its lowest notes on overdrive might be described as having a booming, fuzzy tone color. A clean guitar (no overdrive) playing a solo on its high notes might be said to have a bright, sparkling color.

In orchestras, for example, good composers know how to combine tone colors just like master painters: i.e. when a cello plays the same melody at the same time as a french horn, the two together create a new color that neither of them could create on their own.

Think about what tone colors are at your disposal. If you have a sax player who plays a solo, try having another instrument play along with the sax player at the same time so that the two can create a new color: have the bass guitar follow in its high range the melody of the sax, for example.

If you don’t have a lot of instruments at your disposal, don’t let that stop you. One guitar can produce a wide variety of tone colors depending on how you play it and where (in its range) you play it. Find interesting ways to combine the instruments you do have, including the vocal cords. Even just having a guitar player follow the same melodic line of the vocalist for a few bars can add an unexpected freshness (new tone color) to the melody of the song that will catch ears off guard.

2. Bounce the “Theme” Around the Room like a Beach Ball

Good symphonic composers — Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Debussy, Takemitsu — all have one thing in common: they know how to spin a single musical idea (the main melody or “theme”) a dozen different ways.

Let’s break down what this might mean for a rock band.

If your song has, let’s say, a main guitar “riff,” sort of a thematic hook that the guitar player jams to several times throughout the song, spice it up by giving that theme to other instruments in the band when the listener’s least expect it — maybe during a break between the chorus and verse or during the bridge. Or use several instruments to play the theme together, meaning the guitar player starts to play the first few notes, but then the bass player combined with the keyboardist jumps in and plays the next few notes, and then your trumpet and violin players (if you have other instruments) jump in and play the final notes of the riff. This might seem gimmicky, but if it’s arranged with care and taste, it can have real artistic beauty. Even if you only do this once in a song, it will catch the listener off guard and give their ears new tone colors to enjoy. It won’t just be, “Oh, yep, there’s the guitar player again jamming to the same riff that he’s already played three times in the song.”

3. Listen to More Classical Music

All of this has its roots in what pop culture calls “classical” music (though the term “classical” is just one time period of symphonic music: the 1700s and early 1800s). Orchestration, by its traditional definition, means taking a musical idea and writing it for an entire orchestra to play. People have been doing this for a long time and, frankly, we have a lot to learn. Let’s not have the individual arrogance to think that our talent for arranging/producing/writing music is somehow the first of its kind. Let’s also not have the group pride in thinking that our genre is superior to anything else in music history.

In terms of sheer artistic complexity and aesthetic genius, the idea that our modern culture is superior to previous ones is, well, kind of a joke.

If you don’t believe me, sit down and listen to some classical music — with headphones, preferably (to hear the full sonic range as closely as possible) — for a good hour or more several times a week or month. Immerse yourself in some of the masterpieces of history: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, The Planets Op. 32 by Gustav Holst, Mozart’s Symphony No. 25, and, more recently, Requiem for String Orchestra by the master of tone color Toru Takemitsu — just to name a few masterpieces.

The more great music you listen to, the better your ear for tone color — and your drive to create something unique — will be.

4. Listen to Other Artists Who Use Tone Color in Creative Ways

Off the top of my head, I can think of several Christian bands and artists who have used tone color creatively: King’s Kaleidoscope (see their song Felix Culpa), Kevin Max (see Dead End Moon from Stereotype Be), Starflyer 59 (see Can You Play the Drums?), and Easter Teeth with their wild combination of distorted bass and horns.

In secular music, I’m especially partial to people like T Bone Burnett (producer and guitar legend — see Raising Sand and Jakob Dylan’s Women and Country).

5. Get Your Hands On Real Instruments

Synthesizers and computer programs are great, but there’s something about playing a physical instrument and listening to its timbre bounce around the room that gives you a distinct feel for an instrument’s tone color. Try to find new instruments — borrow or buy cheap hand-me-downs — to learn and play. Get your hands on ones you haven’t played before and explore all the different tone colors that are possible from them.

And, to be fair, synthesizers, by definition, are tone generators, and if you have a good synthesizer you can spend hours getting lost in its tone color. Try finding creative ways to pair up your synthesizer with other instruments in your band to create new colors using a combination of digital and acoustic timbre.

Why Christian Music Needs a More Creative Vision

Not everything you try will work, but that’s the point: experiment and take risks. Although the Christian music industry is growing, it is still a small community compared to the secular music industry that has been gestating and growing since the early 20th century. When you’re in a small community, people tend to take less risks. That’s why we need more trailblazers in Christian music. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if it isn’t something “mainstream” that Nashville major labels are churning out. It’s important for Christians to do this because we serve the Author of Life — the Creator, the Artist of Artists — and we should honor Him and strive to be as creative as possible.

***

Subscribe to the Rocking God’s House community newsletter and get:
  • a FREE digital download of the relaxing classical guitar instrumental “Rome,” an RGH original
  • a FREE e-copy of the devotional “Finding Jesus When You’re Burned Out: 14 Days of Encouragement When You Need it the Most”