Leading From Melody Instruments

Print Friendly, PDF & Email



What do we mean by a melody instrument? Most simply, we’re speaking about all those instruments that play a single note melody line (like the violin, flute, trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, cello, etc.) which play an important role in the church music ensemble. Remember the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, who was able to mesmerise all the children of the town into blindly following him (ultimately to their cruel deaths!) with just his pipe playing! Well more helpfully, the Bible commonly talks of melody instruments as leading the praise of God’s people:

‘Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.’ (1 Kings 1:39-40)
[Note: In this case the “earth splitting noise” is a positive!]

However, despite the important place of melody in the musical texture, we can’t just play whatever we want in an ensemble because there will almost always be another melody going on that we want to complement, not compete against. While the piano, guitar and bass are all capable of playing melodic parts, the primary melody line in congregational music is always the voice of the singers: those leading the singing and the congregation itself. It is this congregational voice, the star melody line and the lead voice in our ensemble, that we most want to hear and support. Our job as a member of the ensemble is to do everything we can to allow those voices to shine, to use our instruments to support the melody of the gospel, as the church sings that gospel to one another and to God their Father. Even the way you stand (or sit!) and express yourself will contribute to this support as a melody instrumentalist. Your body language and visible engagement – both when playing and not playing – are all contributing to the visual lead of the song. So even if you never sing or play a note of the primary melody line, you are a still song leader!


Knowing your role 

The principle is the same for everyone serving on the music team, no matter their instrument or position: serve the song, serve the ensemble and serve the congregation, as we serve God together. The role of the melody instrumentalist in each of these areas will look different to the other musicians, but if you’re all on the same page and share these priorities, it will help your music ministry to thrive.

2.a Serve the song

The specifics of how and what to play will vary with the nature of each song. The best way to approach a song is to first ask what it needs to lift the vocal line, rather than starting with the assumption that you will play all the way through, or even at all.

When we recognise the primary role of the congregational voice, then anything we play on our instruments needs to complement that melody, not compete with it. For example, what you’re used to playing in your symphony orchestra or jazz band might not be helpful in the congregational setting. Or you might come up with a creative counter melody that is technically perfect and sounds beautiful, but actually ends up fighting with the congregation for melodic space. This is not to say that there is never a place for an interesting riff or improvisation, but as a general rule, always think how to be helping the congregation, rather than distracting them. That might mean playing long sustained notes underneath the vocal melody, or notes parallel to the melody (a harmony line), or sometimes not playing at all; but leaving more space for the singers rather than less is always a better policy. We’ll come back to the practicalities of this shortly.

2.b Serve the ensemble 

As a part of an ensemble, we should always be thinking about how to serve the other musicians we are playing with. Every church context and band set-up will require something different, and while there is no one model of how to play with others, there are a few basic principles that will help guide your playing.

Understanding tone colour.

Tone Colour is the musical element that melody instruments can really ‘own,’ as we are able to bring the vibrant colours of the orchestra to our church ensembles. Each instrument has its own unique timbre: the brightness of a trumpet can be hugely effective in creating emotional lift; a reflective cello line can express a wonderful sense of yearning; a soaring violin solo could be used as an instrumental focal point as you build into a climactic moment of the song. Your instrument has its own palette of tone colours and when used thoughtfully can be used to create contrast throughout the song. The opportunities for creating colour and contrast are endless – but are made all the more rich and powerful when they are used to emphasise the emotion that the word of God inspires as we sing. 

[1] You might be thinking, “No, more is more when it comes to icing!” But seriously, do you really want as much icing as cake? It’s just too much of a good thing.

[2] In the vocal leading module, we’ve told vocalists that it’s their job to figure out and establish the best means of communication for your context. And, just to be clear, ‘the look’ is not recommended!

To do all this effectively means being intentional about when to play and when not to play in the arrangement. Your instrument is effectively the ‘icing on the cake’; and as in the case of real icing, the ratio needs to be right and less is often more. [1]

Listen to each other. It might seem an obvious thing to say, but it is essential that you are able to hear each other! If you have a foldback system, it is always worth spending time getting your monitor levels right – don’t suffer through a rehearsal where you can’t hear yourself. Make sure you can hear the other instruments that you really need to (eg. guitar, piano & lead vocalist) and turn down the ones that aren’t as important to your line. We know the all-too-familiar scramble to set up and rehearse, and often the first thing to go is the time to get monitor levels right. However, if you can’t hear one another, all your hard work in rehearsal could totally go out the window.

Follow the vocalist. From the congregation’s perspective, the vocal leader is the most obvious (and right) person to follow during the song, so you should be following them too – even if they go rogue! If the vocalist launches into an unrehearsed double chorus, you’ll need to roll with it. To do this well, have a team action plan for these situations; vocal leaders can cue these changes verbally (saying something like “let’s sing that again” or calling out the song lyrics of the next section), or they can use sign language to indicate which part of the song to jump to, or they may just turn around in panic and give you ‘the look’. [2] Whichever way your band decides to communicate, establishing and maintaining good sight lines between band members will help you play in a way that leads the congregation well.

2.c Serve the congregation

We can often spend lots of time playing in rehearsals without the congregation, and it can be easy to forget that we are fundamentally there to serve them. Remember, we aren’t just thinking about the musicians that we’re playing with, but the congregation we’re playing for. When it comes to church music, the congregation’s voice is the primary instrument. Facilitating their singing, comfortably and confidently, is the primary reason that we’re playing in church, so it’s crucial that we allow the necessary space and support for this voice to be heard. Therefore, as we discussed in the previous chapter, serving the church with your instrument will often mean sacrificing your ‘most impressive’ playing. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but remember that our goal is to point the congregation to Jesus, and that starts with our own hearts as we lift our eyes to him. We are facilitators, not performers; servants, not rockstars.

2.d Serve God

Serving on the music team can sometimes feel like a laborious, thankless task. It may feel as though you’ve given lots of time (normally many years) to learn your instrument just to be playing one long sustained note after another. The musicians are often the first ones there to rehearse and set up and the last to leave as you pack away your kit. But be encouraged! Your labour is hugely valuable to the ministry of God’s word in song. As you provide a confident, clear lead for congregational singing, God is using his word to build his people, the Spirit is working to teach and transform, and Jesus is receiving the praise and honour he is due.


Using melody instruments 

There is no magic number or perfect combination of instruments we can use to lead congregational singing. But whether you have one or many, there are some important practical issues to consider. The first question to ask before you start to play is: ‘What will be most helpful for the congregation?’ The answer, however, will vary depending on your context and available resources. The two examples below reflect common scenarios for many churches, but these also aren’t hard and fast rules!

3.a One melody instrument

One melody instrument is definitely the easiest to slot into your ensemble. Where there is space for riffs and improvisation (more on this later), a single instrument will be able to have free rein in these sections. Two or more instruments would require more thinking and planning ahead so they don’t end up fighting over the melodic space. If you’re an ensemble leader it’s worth considering this, and knowing that this might often involve pre-arranging the parts. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use more than one, but many churches will not have the time or resources to provide the kind of sheet music that melody instrumentalists are often used to working from. Some instrumentalists might be able to work out a line from a piano score or a chord chart, without the need for writing out a seperate part. Either way, you will still need to think carefully about the structure of the song, and when would be the most helpful time to play or not play.

3.b Two or more melody instruments

In some church contexts, you might have one than one melody instrument, or even a brass band or string quartet. These can be a beautiful addition to your regular ensemble, but integrating a number of instruments will be a very different process to that of a single melody instrument. This is where it is important to consider the overall texture of the arrangement. In the case of the string quartet, for example, the four instruments would function as one layer in the texture. You would normally, therefore, arrange a quartet homophonically (each part moving at the same time). In a hymn this might mean every note, but in contemporary music it will more likely mean playing longer or slower changing chords. While you still may be able to cut corners by asking everyone to play from a piano part, you ideally need to pre-arrange the parts. As a general rule, don’t use more than one or two melody instruments unless you have a score or pre-arranged parts. This will avoid muddying the texture and distracting from the real purpose of our playing: to lift our eyes to Jesus.


How to play

4.a Emotional lift

In many ways the melody instrument mirrors the voice of the congregation. So play your instrument as if you were singing: to express emotion. Of course, this happens within the context of the song’s arrangement, where you will limit your playing to the times when you want to create emotional lift – at key points such as the chorus, pre-chorus, or by playing the final verse an octave higher.

4.b Play with thought given to the lyrical content 

All members of the band should be doing this! We should always play in a way that recognises the words that we are singing. This may mean not playing at all when the congregation really needs to reflect on a serious truth or alternatively lifting the roof when Psalm 150 calls ‘every breath to praise the Lord.’ You could ask yourself: “How would I sing this if I was in the congregation?” and reflect that in your playing. So if you would be belting out the chorus, play loudly and expressively! Or if you’d be singing more quietly, again let that influence how you’re playing your instrument.

4.c You are a visual cue 

It is unlikely (although not impossible) that you will need to lead the singing vocally whilst playing your instrument. But as a member of the band you still play a role in leading the singing by giving musical and visual cues. The way you breath before a phrase or lift your instrument at the beginning of a verse communicates something to the congregation. To be helpful in this way, you might consider exaggerating your actions to make your instructions clear. This might feel a bit awkward at first, but the alternative is looking disengaged, which doesn’t help anyone. And if you can, sing along to parts of the song that you’re not playing in – just be careful not to miss your entry!


What to play 

It would be difficult for us to say here what will suit every different church context and stylistic preference. However, two primary considerations which will affect what we play are:

  1. An awareness of the musical elements of melody and tone colour within the arrangement – the elements we use to create colour and contrast.
  2. Whether you are using written music, chord charts or are ‘improvising’ your part.

As a melody instrumentalist the ideal is for you to develop the ability to play by ear. This might seem daunting if you have never done it before, but it will bring a great deal of flexibility to your playing, where you are not restricted by a particular key or written arrangement, and will enable you to serve lots of different contexts well. Some of the key ingredients to playing by ear include improvisation, transposition and chord recognition. Which we’ll talk more about below.

5.a Should I play the tune? 

In most contexts, the congregation and the vocal leader will have the tune covered more effectively than you would be able to do. In practice, playing the ‘actual’ notes of the vocal melody will nearly always get lost in the mix. At the same time, we need to avoid playing polyphonic counter melodies that compete with the sung melody and distract the congregation. Rather, finding a ‘tenor’ or ‘alto’ harmony line that mirrors the rhythms of the sung melody in a register that suits your instrument will help to add to the texture without distraction – like singing a harmony part!

5.b Sustained notes

While it might feel a bit boring, playing sustained notes is often the most effective way to complement the singing as you give more weight to the texture at climactic points in the song. You can save the more creative riffs and fills for turn-arounds, introductions and outros. Our message to the whole band is that the best sound is achieved when we all play less, rather than more (apart from the congregation). Playing a harmony line (i.e. notes in parallel with the melody) can definitely sound great, but if we slow down the rate of movement even further, we can create a rich and warm effect in nearly every style of song. This will work even when you have multiple instruments playing chordally, to achieve an effect similar to that of an organ or a keyboard ‘pad’. Even though playing sustained notes will feel like you are doing very little, the arrangement will always sound better when you don’t play throughout the whole song. Remember the aim of creating color and contrast. So try introducing these sustained notes in the second half of a verse, or in a bridge section, or any part of the song that would benefit from a crescendo.

[3] For more on basic harmony, check out our corresponding module for piano.

And in terms of what notes to actually play… if you have experience on a harmony instrument like the piano, you’ll already know what notes make up a chord. But very simply, if you see, for example, a chord symbol ‘C’, then you can choose either a C, E or G (I, III, V) for your sustained note. [3]

5.c Playing with other melody instruments

If you have more than one melody instrument playing in your band, it’s worth considering the different tone colours that each instrument can offer and how you might use this palette of colours for different effects. For example, a cello might play the verse on its own, but the addition of flute in the chorus will bring a new level of brightness. Brass, in particular, should be saved for exactly the right moment of lift, and just may not be right for some songs.

5.d Vary your register 

Particularly if you are on your own – you can achieve variety in colour and contrast simply by playing higher and brighter notes at the right time. As a general rule, you should play lower and slower in reflective sections and play higher and faster when needing to create lift and climax.

5.e Melodic riffs and fills 

A fill is a bit of improvised melody that happens in short bursts in the spaces in between sung phrases. (See this example of a piano fill between two lines of the verse in Won My Heart.) These should only be played by one person – which also means checking with the rest of the ensemble (particularly pianos and lead guitars) to make sure that they are not also trying to get into that space. A riff tends to be a more composed (rather than improvised) bit of melody – such as in the introduction or turn-around between verses (like in this cello riff from the same song). Riffs can also be played by multiple instruments together – but they have to be practiced to sound tight.

5.f Learn to transpose 

Up there with playing by ear and being able to improvise, sight transposition is a hugely useful skill to learn. For a number of reasons (such as singability for the congregation) it is often desirable to change the key of a song. Rather than being dependent on having everything written out, learn how to sight transpose or play by ear as much as possible. If you have learnt a transposing instrument (e.g. trumpet, clarinet, sax) you’ll already know how to do this. For strings and woodwind, it’s a great life-skill to pick up, and after a few goes it’ll be easy!



Improvisation (composing a line of melody on the spot) gives you the flexibility to slot into the ensemble wherever it is most effective. It means that you can roll with arrangement changes as you rehearse with your band and can make a song your own. The more confident you are at improvising, the more useful you will be in the church band set-up. Being good at improvisation is as much about knowing when to play as when not to play. Remember – your improvisations should never compete with the vocal melody, or people will start looking at you rather than focusing on God who they are singing about.

Can you learn how to improvise? Yes! While improvisation may seem like it is all about ‘being in the moment’, it actually requires lots (and lots) of practice to learn how to do it naturally and fluently. Here are a few simple tools you can use in your practice:

a. Use small stepwise melodic and rhythmic fragments. These are safer and will sound more tasteful than attempting to ‘shred.’ Using the chord as your framework, you can very easily create some safe improvised movement by moving between the notes in an arpeggio.

b. Create harmony lines easily by figuring out which melodic intervals always work. For example, the ‘fifth’ note of the scale (e.g. G in the key of C) can often harmonize a whole song! Conversely fourths and sevenths are dangerous – unless you really know what you are doing.

c. Try using the Pentatonic scale of the key you are in. Here it is in C Major.

Moving up and down between these notes (in the appropriate key!) is a fairly fail-safe method of improvising a melody. Once you get familiar with this scale you’ll start noticing fills and riffs based on these notes in lots of songs – like this one!



7.a Are you saying that I should only play in big moments of a song?

Not at all. In your arrangements, consider giving some space for melody instruments to do the musical leading. To help the congregation to emotionally engage with what they are singing you might want to take out the rhythm section of the band for a particular verse. And if, for example, you had four single note instruments, they might be able to carry the verse of a hymn on their own or with the support of the piano. Similarly in a more contemporary song, keep the melody instruments going in a stripped back section, as if they are mirroring the voices in the congregation.

7.b I am a cellist. Shouldn’t I just play the bass notes?

No! Cellos are a tenor, not bass instrument. They do great melody work, and nicely reflect the range of the male voice. You could use your instrument to add bass in some sections of the song, but definitely don’t feel limited to this range

7.c I don’t know how to relate to guitarists. What can I do?

It is likely that as a single note instrumentalist you will have a quite different musical background to a guitarist. You most likely spent 8 years in a school practice room, while they spent 8 months learning chords in their bedroom! Every church, however, has exactly the right mixture of people and gifts that God has chosen to give them. So don’t worry about playing music with someone of a different musical background or taste. Church music is a unique genre for us all, both in its purpose and practice, and a wonderful place to bring together different musical styles and traditions.

7.d I never learnt how to improvise or play by ear. Help!

Similar to what many pianists have found – your musical education may not have equipped you with every skill that is helpful for the ‘organic’ nature of church music. Are you able to do instant transpositions to help the congregation sing in a better key? Are you able to pull an ‘alto’ or ‘tenor’ line out of a piano score? Can you improvise a line of longer notes from a chord chart? These are not difficult skills in and of themselves, but if you haven’t done them much, you’ll definitely find it helpful to spend time at home practicing them.

7.e Parts or no parts?

If you are the musical director, you’ll need to make this call based on a range of factors. The more your ensemble looks like an orchestra, the more you will need to prepare arrangements and write out parts. In practice, it would be hard for three or more players to successfully improvise the parts and it still sound effective. Similarly, with less experienced players, you may need to provide a basic written out part. A simple starting point is to take a highlight pen to a piano score and mark out the best notes to play.

7.f There are only two of us in the band. Shouldn’t I play all the way through a song?

No! Even if it is you and a piano, you can create lovely colour and contrast simply by picking your moments carefully.

7.g I’m a music director who doesn’t play a melody instrument – is there anything else I need to know in order to instruct them well? 

It will really help your melody instrumentalists if you can get semi-familiar with the instrument they’re playing. Spend some time learning the range of the instrument; consider how they can be used effectively to create colour and contrast; think about whether they need to transpose and what keys might best suit them (e.g. a song in A major means your trumpeter will be playing in 5 sharps – so maybe one to avoid if you want to keep them happy!) At the same time, if you have explained the vision and arrangement for a song, you can normally trust that your instrumentalist will know what to do!

Playing a melody instrument in church requires a unique set of skills that you won’t necessarily learn by doing formal grades. Below we have summarised some of those skills we think worth developing to do this job really well, starting from basic to advanced.

  1. Playing in an ensemble
  • Play simply in order to “lock together” with the rest of the band (always think less is more!)
  • Recognise where to play and not play within the song in order to add colour and contrast to the arrangement
  • Have the ability to listen to other key members of the band (such as the song leader or bass player) as you play your own instrument
  1. Reading from lead sheets or chord charts
  • Pick out sustained notes from chords on a lead sheet or chart (e.g. in the chord of C major, know to play a C, E or G.
  • Create a harmony line that complements the sung melody line, either from a lead sheet, chord chart, or by ear.
  • Transpose the chords in a song from a lead sheet (one key up, one key down)
  1. Rhythm
  • Play sustained notes in common time signatures
  • Identify where the pulse should be emphasised within the bar or melodic phrase
  • Use rhythm to create contrast within a piece (e.g. adding build into a new section or creating space)
  1. Tone colour
  • Create a musical colour palette from your instrument, knowing which techniques will produce different sounds and moods
  • Identify where different tone colours should be used to add colour and contrast to a song
  1. Improvising
  • Use the pentatonic scale to improvise short melodic lines of about 4-6 notes
  • Gain confidence in adding short improvised fills between lines of sung melody
  • Be aware of not playing over or competing with the sung melody