Tip for writing: develop or stay consistent?

Take a look at this short snippet for a second.


Many of you will recognize that the melody (piano) is a spiritual called “Were You There.” I am arranging a song for Kelsey (my violin-playing daughter) and here is a 4-bar section from it where she is playing a non-melody line.

The line that she is playing is simple: it consists of starting on a note, moving down a third and then back up to the original note. This occurs 4 times or once in each measure.

In three of the four measures, it occurs on the first beat of the measure. However, in the third measure, it occurs on the second beat of the measure.

You might wonder why I wrote it that way. It is intentional but it is not something I have always done. There was a time when I would have thought that good writing would require those four bars to be consistent. Whether intentionally or not, someone somewhere in my past (probably college) influenced me to think that way.

The third bar is an example of something we call development. Development means taking an idea and changing it slightly to start to tell a story or create interest. The 3-note pattern is the idea and one way I chose to develop it was to move it from the first beat to the second.

I have talked about this before but good music is a combination of repetition and development. Both are necessary. The key is knowing the balance between the two.

If you have played a lot of classical music, you have undoubtedly played pieces that stayed in repetition mode for very long periods of time. That is perfectly fine because those pieces are undoubtedly pretty long. But in church music, we don’t have the luxury of long periods of time. If you spend a lot of time in repetition mode, there is no time to develop.

So, if this particular piece was 15 minutes long, I might stick with the exact same pattern and timing for 8 or 16 bars. But because it is a three minute piece, I need to start developing right away.

I could show you examples in published church music (including piano arrangements) where you see repetition overused to the point that it just gets boring (in my opinion). You will often see a whole verse that uses exactly the same treatment. Don’t be fooled. It might look wonderfully consistent on paper and it might get a good grade in a music class but that does not mean it is good writing.

Besides the timing change, you start to see other notes being added in the third and fourth bars. Again, that is development occurring, but notice it gets busier when the melody is stuck on the same note for 6 beats. That is also done intentionally. The two lines (piano and violin) are trading the movement back and forth. It doesn’t have to be that way, but in general, it is a good way to write.