Mission Improbable: Making Some Gospel Music

Mission Improbable: Making Some Gospel Music

It’s been a pretty good week so far, thanks to some recent insights I’ve had about my so-called “work life balance”. I’ve been continuing to take notes on Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto, and I’ve been feeling better about making choices that will allow me to relax and be happier with my pace. Up to now, I’ve always labored under the assumption that I needed to work faster, work harder and be optimally competent because I attributed these qualities with “professionalism” and “success”. I also suspect there is some subtle cultural conditioning going on too; even though my parents didn’t force me to study hard or strive to be successful for its own sake, I nevertheless picked up this value through sheer osmosis. It went without saying. My parents and the extended families all have a very highly-developed sense of mission as well, being involved with the Christian community in Taiwan and other academic pursuits. Although I didn’t follow in their footsteps, the idea that there was a higher authority to which I needed to report to. God? Standards? Ideals? Philosophy? I kept seeking it out, craving some kind of closure, until sometime this past Monday. I have come to the conclusion that I will actually be pretty happy seeking things out, because I have been happy doing this. The rest will take care of itself. This is just one of those life lessons, I think, that every person has to learn for themselves. I’ve been told this over and over by people I love and respect, but you know how it goes: it’s just not the same unless the apple falls on your head.

Having come to a kind of inner peace, my daily routine is starting to come back together after having fallen to frequent travel and a veritable parade of wheezy winter coughs. I have started going to the gym again too; I was happy to see that while my muscles are noticeably flabby, cardiovascular endurance is not as degraded. But something else was missing: with my reacquired sense of personal stability, I felt the need to do something non-routine. Something impossible, or at least relatively unexpected. My sense of creative adventure has returned.

I mentioned this to one of my coffee buddies this morning at Starbucks, looking for a suggestion of something that would be IMPOSSIBLE to do. I like impossible tasks because it’s fun to think of ways to whittle ’em down to the realm of probability, winning the no-win scenario, and so forth. Unfortunately, the first thing she said was “GO TO THE MOON”, and though I instantly started thinking about ways to get there, all of them took a lot of years and a lot of money; visiting the moon will have to wait until I make a bazillion dollars or Southwest starts flying there out of Las Vegas (all my “frequent flyer” miles are with them, you see). So that kind of took the wind out of it. However, on the way out I heard some gospel music playing over the cafe loudspeaker, and thought, “Hey, I should write a gospel song! How hard could that be?” Sure, I can’t play an instrument worth beans, can’t read sheet music, and my experience creating music has been limited to editing stock sources for use in “online webinars” for IBM…but why not?

And so, this will be my amateur project. This should be fun.

The Approach

There’s a favorite line I have from the television show The Unit, which is about a team of special forces operatives. What I like about the show is that it’s about the characters and their mental attitude toward getting things done, not about shooting stuff or knifing people in the dark (though they do that pretty well too). In one episode, the wife of one of the officers is trying to work out a moral dilemma, and another member of The Unit relays some advice that the commander had told him in the past:

If you knew the answer, what would it be?

I like that line a LOT, because it’s tricky and if you can master it, it probably is the way to at least get going on finding the solution. In a lot of cases, there is no wrong way to start, and the solution presents itself only after you start looking for it.

In the case of writing Gospel music, I’m in a similar situation. I have an idea what Gospel music is from movies like The Blues Brothers, the occasional episode of American Idol and Ally McBeal. I once saw a volunteer Gospel group perform at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, trying in vain to raise the roof with a pretty introverted crowd. And because I was raised first as a Presbyterian minister’s son, then later grew up on the campus of a theological seminary with a very LOUD music building, I’ve been exposed to a LOT of hymns. On the seminary, walking to and from the school bus stop I’d hear vocalist singing scales over and over again. And when Grandpa (himself also an ordained minister) gave me a full-sized harmonica that I started to play with, I eventually discovered that it could ONLY play nursery school songs and hymns. Every time I would try to toot out something funky or popular, I would find that I was missing some notes. It turns out that my harmonica was made for the key of C Major, which is the key of practically every hymn played in mainline protestant churches. So that’s what I could play. After a while, I sort of gave it up when I started to crave “bluesy notes” and didn’t know that’s what it was. A few times since then I’d tried to figure out how music “worked”, reading up on harmonic relationships between notes and driving my Mom nuts with questions like, “but where do the notes come from?” Mom liked her notes just the way they were printed on the sheet, she did; my continual questions about the theory and the underlying principles of why some chords sounded “good” and other “ech” didn’t get too far with her. This mystery continued into college, when I asked some guitar players some questions about chords, and they started happily tossing around terms like “Minor 7th” and “Diminished 9th”. When I asked them what the numbers meant, they really couldn’t tell me; they just knew how to look up the fingerings and believed such chords were “cool” in some musical aesthetic sense. I eventually figured out that in common use, these terms are largely descriptive of a certain pattern of notes and are used to reference characteristic features of certain genres of music (jazz, for example). The connection I was looking for was technical and emotional: I wanted to map chords to emotions, transitions, and progressions, because that’s how I hear music.

So that’s what I have to work with: an emphasis “feeling” and the ability to “hear” when something sounds right to me. I have a keyboard and the imprint of 18 years of classical church music shaping my idea of what music sounds like, with more recent exposure to mainstream blues, jazz, and popular music.

The elements of my Gospel song, as far as I can figure them, are something like this:

  • Words There’s usually something about Jesus, The Lord, Praising Him, Sweetness, Grace, Salvation, Mercy, Forgiveness, Having Journeyed, Now Seeing, Getting Shown the Way, Being Led, Seeing the Light, Feeling the Love, and the occasional acknowledgment to Joyful Noisemaking. There’s a little story that goes along with it; the classic progression is being a sinner, down and out, or otherwise depressed, but then POW, Jesus or The Lord steps in and the choir has something to get excited about.

  • Music This is where I’m a little shaky on what to do. Ordinarily I would want to make something original but it’s quite probably that anything I come up with is going to sound like something I’ve heard. Compounding the problem is the fact that I can’t actually play the piano. What I can do, however, is press down keys on the keyboard and work out what the progression might be, mapping my notion of how the song progresses emotionally to choose what I want. Then I can work out the interconnects between each chord later. I know, I know…I am such an engineer. I guess this is a good opportunity to learn how to transcribe notes. When I was a kid I did take some piano lessons, but never could really read sheet music as I just pretended to read, relying instead on memorized finger positions.

  • Vocals I can’t sing either, but I guess if I’m writing a song I’ll have to try. I’ll worry about that later.

  • Song Structure I don’t have one in mind, but what usually seems to happen is that you have a verse that goes on for a while, which leads into a refrain that sets the common theme, and then the song repeats. In popular music, there’s usually some kind of change-up (I think this is called “the bridge”) that is in a different key, but I’ll not worry about that.


p>So that’s the idea. I think I’ll start with Music first, because I just plugged in the keyboard.


I expect this to be fun, and to be educational, that’s it. It will probably result in something that’s very derivative and not very “good”, but it’s an experiment; maybe I’ll luck out. I’m also NOT looking for proper instruction or a methodology to learn “the right way” to do this, which is part of the fun. I have a tendency to get stuck in the “optimal instruction” mindset in the first place, so deliberately approaching music in an ad-hoc fashion might help banish my stiff and unfunky mannerisms. May the Good Lord have mercy on me and show me the way! :-)

» On to Part 2


  1. Jeni 16 years ago

    What a neat/cool/ambitious project!

    One thing you might be interested in is the “codification” that is part of the African American spiritual tradition.  In the song “Deep River,” for example, it’s been suggested that “Jordan” represents the Mississippi and that “campground” represents freedom to the north:

    Deep River,
    My home is over Jordan.
    Oh, Deep River Lord.
    I want to cross over into campground.

    Other songs, like “Same Train” have a much more obvious connotation, referencing the Underground Railroad.

    There’s an interesting description of what some of the terms used in spirituals mean, here, and some more good background info here.

  2. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Jeni: Wow, that is very cool to know…thanks! Gonna definitely check out those links.

    On a side note, this reminds me of something I forgot to mention, which was to NOT LISTEN to any Gospel music before trying to make one…just going on my associations, memories and a certain intent. It is like undertaking a logo design without flipping through a collection of other people’s work to steal, er, “for inspiration” :-)

  3. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Update Notes: 10PM

    Apparently I can’t just start with a bunch of established chords and march on through. The chords have to change quite frequently…I thought I could actually get away with a lot fewer…that might work for a traditional hymn that doesn’t do much, but the idea of creating a melodic vocal line that will work with some interesting harmonies is a pickle! I ended up also having to type up a scratch lyric that just established some kind of repetitive structure to hang the notes around. It’s quite an interesting design problem.

    Would having a stronger lyric help? Simple lyrics give rise to simple melodies and harmonies, unless I can break the words down into strings of vowels and consonants, and keep the voices themselves in mind. Maybe, though, the simple melodies offer adequate room to play around with embellishment…I won’t know until the whole song is put together.

    The result: it’s pretty hackneyed…trying to figure out how to actually transcribe it or capture it to see what it actually would sound like. Thinking of shooting video of just groups of chords playing, then editing them together in an editor to compensate for my inability to actually play anything when I want. Hooray for crutches! :-)

  4. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Ok, in the meantime I am scribbling this progression down for a first “verse”, before a “refrain”. It sounds more hymn-y than gospel-y, but it might be that this is like trying to make a cool illustration when all you’ve done is lay down some squares and circles and maybe some cheap gradient fills…the rest comes later? Hm.

    GCE – BEG – ACE – GBD
    ACE – CFA – GBF – GCE

    This must be some standard progression I’ve heard before, but it took a while to figure it out. The problem with the ending GCE is that it closes off this group, and I can’t figure out how to bust into the refrain. Hmm. Maybe it will be clearer to me tomorrow morning, when I figure out how to capture it.

    On a side note, I am starting to recognize the names of particular keys on the keyboard by their letter just by trying to recreate these 3-note chords and experience them.

  5. Steve Alexander 16 years ago

    Hi David,

    Here’s the thing about harmonicas in C major.  If you play them in C, then sure, they work well for nursery rhymes and simple songs, but not much else.

    You can use a harmonica in C to play the blues by using it to play against music that’s written in G, or in D minor.  What this means is that you’re effectively playing more bluesy scales instead of the major scale the harmonica is designed for.  (Technically speaking, that’s the mixolydian and dorian scales, but you don’t need to worry about that.)

    You can get “blue” notes, that is, notes shifted down from where they normally are, by sucking on the harmonica at particular angles.

    I want to tell you a bit about cadences.  Each line of a gospel song ends in a cadence.  It’s like punctuation in a sentence.

    There are four kinds of cadence that you’ll find useful to hear.

    Let’s take the first line of chords you posted:

    GCE – BEG – ACE – GBD

    This represents the following chords:

    C – Em – Am – G

    If I change your first chord of C to have a C in the bass, then you get an interesting descending bass pattern too.

    Chords: C – Em – Am – G
    Bass: C – B – A – G

    The last two chords are Am and G.  This is an “imperfect” cadence.  It’s a common cadence for being half way through a line of song.

    Here’s your second set of chords:

    ACE – CFA – GBF – GCE

    This is the chords:

    Am – F – G7 – C

    My only comment is to have a C in the bass for the last chord.

    Going from a G7 to a C chord is a “perfect” cadence.  As you point out, it sounds like a full stop in text—it’s the end of something.

    If you go to an Am chord instead of a C at the end of this set of chords, you’ll get an “interrupted” cadence.  This sounds like it’s going to finish, but instead, it goes somewhere else.  I guess it’s like a sentence that…

    Am – F – G7 – Am

    ACE – CFA – GBF – ACE

    Then you’re ready to go on with something, like maybe repeating the first line again.  The rest if up to you :-)

  6. Stella Commute 16 years ago

    This is ambitious…In reading your description of how music interests you, you might find a lot to love in the religious music of Bach. I think it would appeal to you in several ways:

    1. His music really takes the mathematical constructs of chord progressions and illuminates them. Even the simplest setting of a chorale will both follow the “rules” of chord progression as they existed at Bach’s time *and* completely surprise you in the way the chords move under the hymn’s tune.

    2. He used music to vividly illustrate the texts he set to music. From using a prolonged series of downward moving minor chord progressions to symbolize the descent into hell, to choosing certain intervals and key signatures when the words of Christ are set, it’s just amazing.

    3. He was a master of productivity, writing epic pieces of music under tight time constraints (and in a tightly-specified musical trope), and producing hymn settings, organ works, and a ton of fab keyboard pieces on a weekly basis. How did he do it? He rocked out with his Bach out, that’s how.

    If you have time, you might try doing a real music theory class—you’ll learn about the mathematical expression of chords and their relationship to each other (much better than talking to guitarists and hoping they’ll know what a diminished 7th is). Follow a couple of semesters of basic and advanced music theory with a form and analysis class (or better yet, a Bach specialty class) and you will (perhaps) find a love.

    Because, dig it, those same principles are undergirding *all* music. It gives you something to do with your whole brain while you listen.

  7. Amanda Himelein 16 years ago
  8. Ben LaVerriere 16 years ago

    I’m most certainly in agreement with everyone else who’s commented: this sounds like a project that’ll be a fun challenge. A few thoughts:

    On the topic of sounding “derivative”—- keep in mind that (as Stella points out) the kind of harmonies you’re writing are ingrained in your ears from all [Western] music. So it’s not so much sounding derivative as sounding like other gospel music—- which is the whole point, right?

    It’s also really amazing to “watch” your progress of composing. As a musician myself, I sometimes have trouble expressing to people that anyone can understand music—- and yet here you are, developing exactly the kind of chord progressions that we all know, intuitively, to sound natural.

    Finally, if you find yourself short on time for the classes Stella mentioned (which are, if possible, a great idea), there are some great music theory intro books on the market. I really enjoy Edly’s Music Theory For Practical People, which is funny and easy to understand.  [http://www.amazon.com/Edlys-Music-Theory-Practical-People/dp/0966161602]. (Disclaimer: I studied with Ed for a while; he’s a great guy. Liked the book before I met him, though.)

    I can’t wait to hear more of your adventure!

  9. Ashe 16 years ago

    Dave: I’ve been thinking lately of composing, but am not sure where to start, especially since I have no instrument besides my voice, and that’s all intuition.  It gets over my head when they start numbering chords.  I wish you success on this one—not least because it might bolster my confidence in undertaking the same.

    Ben: That book you recommended looks like just the thing I need.

  10. Paul Philippov 16 years ago

    You may want to check http://gospelkeyboard.com/ and http://gospelmusicians.com/. I believe they are the biggest gospel musicians community and have many video and audio lessons online.

  11. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Steve: Awesome, thanks for the information! I don’t really understand it, but I get a comforting sense that there IS something behind these patterns, and it’s cool to explore with these hints in the back of my mind. The idea of a cadence, whatever that is, is really fascinating. Finding the similarities between writing and graphics with music is also fun.

    Stella: I’d heard about Bach being mathematical, but I’d never heard anyone express it in such a compelling manner…thank you!

    Amanda: Thanks for the book link! I’ve been looking for good references in this area.

    Ben: I’m glad you are enjoying my progress of figuring out what composing is, and thanks for the perspective on sounding derivative. You’re absolutely right! I’m looking forward to checking out the music theory for practical people…sounds like just what I need!

    Ashe: Sounds like we’re in the same boat! Maybe when it gets to time to writing the lyrics, you can pick through what I’ve ended up with and figure out how to embellish it to make it your own? I wonder how that would work?

    UPDATE: I’ve gotten one of my MIDI controllers (an Axiom 25) to talk to Acid Pro 6.0 (I use this very occasionally for soundtrack work in motion graphics), and have figured out how to pencil in actual notes! No idea how to render it out to a portable audio format yet; if that doesn’t work, I’ll reinstall Reason 2.0, which I have because I thought it might be fun to play with someday.

  12. Steve Alexander 16 years ago

    Thanks for correcting my initial comment, Dave.

    It’s still not quite right though.

    Right now, it reads:
    You can use a harmonica in C to play the blues by using it to play against music that’s written in F, or in G minor.

    It should read:
    You can use a harmonica in C to play the blues by using it to play against music that’s written in G, or in D minor.

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re learning to create music like this.  My first exposure to making music was at the age of 14 when I asked the music teacher at my high school “how do you compose music?”  He was a great guy, and took the time to answer my questions and point me in the right direction.  I went on to study classical guitar, which has been a great pleasure to me ever since.

    If you have questions about the music you’re creating, let me know, and we can arrange a Skype call.  I don’t have anything in particular to teach.  I’m thinking more to listen to the music you’re making, and try to answer questions you have about things like what notes fit together, and why.

  13. Kait Schott 16 years ago

    Wow, this is so amazing to follow along with!

    I found you through some link to the Printable CEO series, and have been lurking about for a bit. I’d been trying to put my finger on what was so compelling here, since I’m not a design/tech person.  I knew it was more than the lovely forms and the promise of productivity.  Then a bit ago you wrote something about thinking like an artists, and I knew it was in there somewhere.  This post here, this is IT. 
    I love that you’ve taken on this crazy project (crazy good, mind you)  and are sharing your whole improvisational problem-solving process with us.  I’ve realized that I like blogs the best when the writer is able to effectively communicate what’s going on in their brain in the midst of some creative endeavor.  It’s been twenty years since I took a piano lesson, but you’ve got me riveted here.  Thanks so much for putting this out here.