Before I start talking about how I arranged Heaven Came Down for Portraits of Hope, I have to admit something. When I arranged it, I did not think about how hard it would be to play. It took a lot of time to get it right in the studio and for the first several concerts, I was afraid to attempt it.
The reason it is hard to play is because it has to be played very precisely to stay with the track. As you may have noticed, the song really moves. I think the click (metronome) is at 252 for a quarter note and all the runs are written as eighth notes. It does not sound good unless my playing matches the orchestra exactly, and believe me when I say that is challenging for me.
Except for the speed, the arrangement is actually quite simple and is built on a simple idea–the use of a pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is a scale built with only five pitches rather than the seven pitches that we are more used to. Pentatonic scales are used around the world and are associated with folk music. In the United States, you hear pentatonic scales often in our folk music such as blue grass and jazz. In the Christian arena, you most often hear this scale in Southern Gospel or black gospel.
The pentatonic scale is built with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th pitches from our normal scale. In other words, in the key of C, the scale is C, D, E, G, and A.
In this arrangement, I use the pentatonic scale with a common twist–the addition of an additional note which happens to be the lowered third. So, when the song starts in the key of F, the scale I am using is F, G, A, C, and D with some Ab’s (lowered thirds) thrown in.
Download a few pages from the arrangement here and study the run in the first two measures. Note that it uses the pentatonic scale I just gave you. Many of the runs throughout the piece (both up and down) use that same scale. In fact, the song ends with exactly the same run as the one from the introduction though it is in a different key.
One of the ways that Southern Gospel pianists get their distinctive sound is by using the pentatonic scale in this way. Sometimes they will also throw flat 5ths and flat 6ths into their runs. If you have any Anthony Burger arrangement books, pull them out and study his runs. You will see that they are always based on pentatonic scales.
This kind of scale work can be used with any chord from the key and the scale always is based on the key rather than the chord. For example, if you are in the key of F, you can play the F pentatonic scale regardless of the chord that is being played in the left hand at the same time.