Instrumentation Notes

Today I thought I’d take some time to answer some instrument-related questions that people have asked recently, as well as offering a few thoughts about the way instrumentation can be used to enhance or change the music we sing and play.

As our choir & orchestra (and children’s choir!) were preparing the song “By Faith”, written by Keith & Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend, several people were wondering about the instrument heard at the beginning of the rehearsal track. Before I tell you about it, here is a video of a live performance of this song, featuring this “mystery” instrument:

Right at the beginning you can see Skip Cleavinger, who is an Irish instrument specialist who does a lot of recording work with Christian artists, and was a featured soloist recently with Allison Krauss and the Nashville Symphony. You can read more about him and hear a few selections from his recent solo album on his MySpace page. On this track, he begins by playing the Uilleann pipes, which is the traditional bagpipe of Ireland. These differ quite a bit, both in appearance and sound, from Highland bagpipes, which are Scottish. All bagpipes have some basic similarities, though, in that they are played by filling a bag (called the bellows) with air, and then squeezing the bellows to force air into the instrument. There are a series of “drone” pipes which always play the same note, and a “chanter”, which plays the melody. Uillean pipes are much more complex than Highland pipes, and can play a lot more notes. For a more detailed explanation of the similarities and differences between Irish and Scottish pipes, click here.

After the introduction, Cleavinger switches to playing the Irish tin whistle, which is an instrument that has appeared on many recordings of songs our choir & orchestra have played. The rest of the instruments used by the Getty’s on this recording are piano (Keith Getty), violin/fiddle (Deborah Klemme), keyboard synthesizer (Joni McCabe), guitar (Bobby McKee), bass (Peter Wahlers), drums (Dustin Rohrer), and a computer drum loop (which you can hear most prominently about 3:28 into the recording). We have used computerized loops on several songs recently.

It is amazing the way instrumentation can affect how a song sounds, and the impact that it has on its audience. While it is important to remember that, ultimately, God is our audience, and that we sing our praise to Him alone, it is also important to remember that ours is a creative God. It brings Him glory when His children worship Him in creative ways, because when we do so we are imaging our Creator!

There are several reasons why arrangers will write for a certain instrumentation. Here are just a few:

  1. To reflect a certain ethnic or cultural background
  2. To fit the musicians available
  3. To match a musical style or genre
  4. To convey a message in the music itself; we call this “programmatic” writing

In the coming weeks I’ll show some examples of each of these, and hopefully provide some insight into the orchestrating process. In the meantime, here are two more videos that will show what a difference can be made in a song simply by changing the instrumentation. This is another song that we’ll be singing and playing here soon, also written by the Getty’s and Stuart Townend. Both have recorded this track on recent albums. The first video is the Getty’s performing this song, using almost exactly the same arrangement that we’ll have when we do it.

Here the band uses the same instrumentation (minus the whistle & pipes) they used in the above recording of By Faith. Our version will be a little different, because we’ll also be incorporating brass and woodwind instruments. This second video is Stuart Townend’s version, using vastly different instrumentation. Here you’ll see banjo, upright bass, fiddle, acoustic guitar, drums, piano, penny whistle, and accordion. Notice the difference compared to the Getty recording.

Townend not only uses creative instrumentation, but uses the instruments in creative ways. For instance, these are all acoustic instruments that might typically be found in a bluegrass or Celtic band, but they are playing neither in a traditional bluegrass nor Celtic style. Also, you’ll notice that the accordion player achieves several unique sounds. First of all, by striking the accordion with a small mallet to add a percussive effect (similar to playing a washboard). Secondly, by playing near an upright piano with the front removed to expose the strings. This allows the piano strings to pick up the resonating frequencies from the accordion, so that the piano strings will vibrate on the same pitches that the accordion is playing. It’s a neat trick!

What makes this song great is not the instrumentation, but the fact that the lyrics contain so much Truth! Still, the musicianship and creativity of both bands allows this song to be expressed and enjoyed in different ways in worship of our God. I believe that He smiles on such things… I know I sure do!