It would be interesting to take a poll among readers of this article to find out what you and I have in common. Do you like the same restaurant I do? Do you like eating microwave popcorn with frozen chocolate chips? Do you watch professional tennis players in grand slam tournaments and think, “I could return that serve”? You get the idea. Ask enough questions, we’ll find some things we have
Discovering things we have in common is a foundational concept to modern worship musicianship. Huh? The concept I’m referring to is the use of common tones. Common tones are notes that are shared between chords. The note A is part of a D major triad and a B minor 7. The note D is part of a G major triad and a C2 chord.
This matters because you and I are involved in modern worship music. One of the significant ways modern worship music can be distinguished from more traditional church music is in the ways keyboard players voice their chords. Each time you play your instrument you’re choosing specific voicings for your chords. The chart says D? You decide where you’re going to put the D, F# and A of that chord on your instrument. You decide whether you’ll play all 3 notes of the chord. You decide whether to use your left hand to play one of the notes. You are voicing the chord. Yes, voicing is a verb. A traditional church musician might play a voicing like Fig.1, with the root, third and fifth of the chord directly above each other.
Let’s say the next chord in your chart is an C2. You’ll make similar decisions. Where will you put the notes of the chord? Will you play all the notes? A traditional voicing might look like what you see in Fig. 2.
A modern approach to voicing of chords would take common tones into consideration. The first thing to do is identify common tones between these two chords. What do you see? Yep, the D is a common tone, occurring in both chords. So, consider a voicing for the D chord that has the D in the soprano, the top note of your voicing, perhaps in the 5th finger of your right hand. Look at Fig. 3.
Now your goal is to keep common tones when you change chords. So, since the D stays in the soprano, fill in the notes of the C2 chord below it. Check out Fig. 4.
Listen closely to keyboard parts on recordings of your favorite worship songs. I’m confident you’ll hear parts that apply this concept of retaining common tones between chords. This will be especially conspicuous if you’re listening to pad parts. When a pad sound is being played the use of common tones is often quite obvious. You hear an unchanging note on top. Now think about how you might play the chords of that song. Do you typically preserve common tones?
Here’s an example of common tone usage from one of today’s most popular worship songs, “Reckless Love”. If you’re playing the song in the key of E, the verse chords would be C#m7, Bsus, and A2. With this progression you have your choice of two common tones to put in the soprano of your voicings. How quickly do you recognize what those common tones are? They are B and E. So, if you put the B on top of your voicing, here’s how you might voice the three chords.
And here are some voicings that could work if you put the E in your soprano.
You might think this is a lot of work, deciding what note to put where, what note to move, etc. Thankfully, with time, recognizing these common tones becomes automatic and you’ll start to notice that your hands are instinctively landing on voicings that naturally preserve common tones.
Spend time at your instrument trying these common tone suggestions. Perhaps write on your chord chart what the common tones are between the chords in your song’s progression. Experiment with the effect of these common tones using an acoustic piano sound, a pad sound, maybe an organ or electric piano sound.
And by all means you should try the popcorn/chocolate chips thing. Yum.