Fills, Turn Signals and Unexpected Moments (The Art Of The Fill, pt 1)

turn signalFills are instrumental (usually) tools that lead us through transitional points in the song. Verses in pop songs usually sound smaller or simpler than the choruses, for example. If I simply end one section and start the next, it will sound abrupt and unexpected. Do that enough and you’ll totally lose the listener as they dial in a new station to listen to.

The listener is expecting some sort of connection with the music, consciously or not, and the natural tension in the music will lead them through their own emotional journey. And the journey they are looking for will be full of unexpected moments.

Unexpected moments, when they are short and logical, draw the listener’s attention and add to their delight. Unexpected moments that are illogical or too long (when the groove is lost, or when pauses interrupt the flow of the song) become irritating.

What The Turn Signal Is Really For

When I get into my car, I expect an experience that is very similar to the last experience I had in my car. Namely, that I’ll follow the rules of the road, the other drivers on the road will get along with me okay, and we’ll all successfully get where we’re going.

When something unexpected happens, that’s when my irritation meter starts to rise. If it’s quick, like someone pulling in front of me with no signal, I can handle the spike in my emotions (“how could they possibly think that pulling out in front of me with no signal was a good idea, the jerk”).

A little more challenging is the failure in my own vehicle (a slow leak becomes a flat tire, the engine overheats, or the brakes give out- why didn’t I get those fixed, now I’m the jerk). That indicates a lack of planning on my part, resulting in a lengthy inconvenience.

An even larger challenge is when other drivers get involved in an ongoing relationship with me but I’m really not wanting one with them (like when I get rear-ended, or I get pulled over for some unknown reason…).

The point is, the trip in my car will feel the most successful when I not only arrive at my destination, but when I arrive with my emotional balance and personal integrity intact. Unexpected moments were handled with grace, and I did my best to help others have a successful interaction with me on the road. And so I will signal when changing lanes, and I’ll do my best not to cut in front of people.  I need to let people know what to expect when I’m driving.

Fills = Musical Turn Signals

You and I expect to hear audible signals when a song goes from one section to another. When we don’t hear a fill, the transition can be abrupt. We’ll save the abrupt transitions for special moments. Smooth transitions are primarily accomplished through fills. Yes, the chords matter and provide their own forward movement. But these days the rhythms propel the song forward even more strongly than the chords do.

When To Play Fills

With our Western European ears (in terms of our music), we automatically listen for groups of four: four beats per measure, four measures per phrase, four phrases in a verse or chorus. It feels really natural to us musically and lyrically for new phrases to begin every four measures. So every time we are about to begin a new phrase, a fill can lead us in. Fills can be played with any instrument, and they can be sung as well. Fills not only telegraph changes in the musical style or texture, it leads the listener through each change from start to finish.

Think of the last time you watched Tarzan (I know this is a stretch, but bear with me) putting his arm around Jane while he grasps the miraculously appearing vine with his other hand and swings from tree to tree. He successfully takes his passenger from one place to another, handling the transition flawlessly. She is along for the ride and knows that the endeavor will probably work out well. But she is not in control. All she can do is sit tight and try not to scream. Maybe swoon, depending on who’s playing Tarzan.

Fills do that for the listener. They handle the transition, and all the listener can do is hold on. But it doesn’t last very long. It is exciting to be taken on the ride, and though the listener expects it to turn out well, he is not the one in control. It can be a thrilling ride.

What Do You Think?

Here is a quick and dirty example of a short song with no fills. The chords themselves provide some interest and contrast, but the fills are missing.

Now listen to the same short song with various length drum fills added at the end of every 4 measures.


Next week, we’ll take a look at fills on each of the rhythm section instruments.

How do you think about using fills? Do you use them strategically in your songs?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

10 Song Attributes To Strengthen Or Sink Your Set List

Which block comes next?
Which block comes next?

I want to get specific with you today on my process for creating a set list. In my context, I’m choosing songs to lead worship at my church. Most of these still apply, however, when you’re doing concerts or clubs.

A well-crafted set list will take the audience seamlessly through a range of emotions.

At the beginning of the set, everyone is in a different emotional place, often just because of how their day has been shaping up. So at the beginning of the set, the goal is to capture attention, interest, curiosity.

By the end of the set, people will be rejoicing, reflective, inspired, contrite – and the songs were the catalyst, breaking down emotional defenses and feeding the soul.

Now for me, creating a really solid set list may take hours. I’m sure I’m not as fast at it as some. But I’ve learned to kind of live through the list, making decisions on songs based on the following attributes. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track all of these attributes, while time-intensive, is really helpful.

The Song Attributes I Look At (In No Particular Order)

1) Topic – What characteristic of God does the song emphasize? What encouraging message will come through to the congregation? Sometimes we may tie the songs topically to the sermon (opening intellectual doors), but often I’ll create a stand-alone set of praise and thanks (opening emotional doors).

2) Title – What does the song title say about the message we’re about to sing? Will it give people a sense of joyful anticipation (like “Today Is The Day”), or concern (like “Let The Waters Rise”), or mystery (like “Praise Adonai” – what does “Adonai” mean)?

3) Hook – Most songs these days have some sort of lyrical and musical hook, a phrase that will stick in your mind and come back to you over and over. Does the song I’m choosing have a strong hook? Is it a hook I want people to be singing all week?

4) Text Direction* – Are we singing about God or singing to God? Or both in the same song? Jumping back and forth can diffuse focus, while choosing one text direction that leads into the other will help the congregation be intentional with their thoughts and expression.

5) Tempo – similarly, the tempo of each song can help the overall feel of the set. Starting fast and ending slow can lead into personal reflection and prayer; starting slow and ending fast can lead into a joyous celebration. And if enough time is available, thoughtful combinations of tempos can work quite nicely.

6) Style and Genre – While blending styles or musical genres look good on paper, keep your style pretty consistent throughout the set. Use a maximum of two styles or genres in a set. Any more will cause people to tune out, and your worship set will feel more like a variety show.

7) Key* – If you want your congregation to sing, make the key accessible to them. If it’s a great song for tenors, it will be too high for most people to stretch up to. If it works well for altos, raise it just a little and it should work for almost everyone. A good range is from Bb (just below middle C) up to D (a ninth above middle C).

8) Rhythmic Framework and Groove – though this will sound a little geeky, decide if the song is built mainly with eighths, sixteenths or triplets. Sometimes going directly from one song to another creates a super-smooth transition in your set, and using songs with similar rhythmic frameworks will allow you to do that. When the groove or framework is different, you will probably need to end one song before you segue (connect) into another.

9) Frequency – When is the last time you played this song? Are people still finding it as helpful to them when they worship, or has it been overused? Determining the appropriate frequency of use for each song in your library can help you anticipate it’s continued helpfulness. Update this attribute often as you pay attention to how people respond to each song. A useful spectrum for scheduling songs is as follows:

  • new songs (repeat often so the people can learn them*)
  • once a month songs
  • once a quarter songs
  • twice a year songs
  • once a year songs
  • once every few years

10) Team* – if you have multiple worship teams, how long has it been since this team has played this song? Keeping songs fresh for the team will help keep them fresh for the congregation.

*These attributes are important for leading worship.

Which song attributes are the most important to you?

Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected] with any questions about worship leading, musicianship or music theory. I’d love to hear from you!

© 2014 Steve Case

Dynamics And You: Playing To The Back Of The House

dynamics graphic
Dynamic Contrast (real soft to real loud to kind of soft)

The need for contrast is huge in order for the listener to get a sense of direction for the song. The only way for the ear to experience the audible journey through a song is to continuously hear something new. What it hears now is not what it heard a few seconds ago.

A key way to make that happen is through the use of dynamics.

Dynamic Contrast

Dynamics are the louds and softs in the music. You have many options at your fingertips for using them:

  1. play at different volume levels from very soft to very loud. Think of it on a scale from 1 to 10.
  2. gradually get louder as you play (called a crescendo), or gradually get softer as you play (called a diminuendo or decrescendo)
  3. play a note or a chord significantly louder than the ones around it (called an accent)

There are more terms we use (mostly Italian) to refine how loud or soft we should play, according to the composer (or editor, or arranger). Often these terms relate the intended mood. For example, the word forte we usually will say means “loud”, but to be precise, it really means “strong”.

If They Didn’t Hear It, We Didn’t Play It

But here’s the hardest part, I think, of playing with dynamic contrast. We can create a slight change in the volume level and feel the difference as we play. But the listener probably won’t hear it. Unless she is reading along in the music or expecting subtle changes in volume, she will most likely miss it.

And I remember a former band director telling us, “if they (the audience) didn’t hear it, you didn’t play it!”

So we really need to over-emphasize the dynamics in our songs. Play with more of a difference between soft and loud, so that the listener can’t miss it.

Playing to the Back of the House

There is an expression in the theater that says an actor must play to the back of the house. Every movement, every word spoken or lyric sung must be overdone so that a person sitting in the back of the theater can easily follow the dialog and action.

Now in the middle of the theater, the same actor and scene will appear slightly over the top, but it is easy to watch.

Up in the front rows, however, if the acting, singing, and movements are being done correctly, it will look quite unnatural. As a matter of fact, it will look, well… goofy.

That’s theater, we know to expect it when we buy the tickets, so it’s okay.

Musically, we need (in my opinion) to practice overdoing the volume changes. Make a subtle change into a more prominent change. Make a prominent change into an obviously big change. Make an obviously big change into what feels like a ridiculously huge change.

Play dynamic changes so big that the listener can’t miss it.

Are you stretching the loud/soft contrasts when you play? Let me know how this works for you! You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

And if you haven’t signed up yet to have these posts and our emails come right to your inbox, take a minute and do it now! When you do, you’ll be able to download our free audio guide and infographic, “Ten Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We hope it inspires you to go to the next level with your music, or get back on task if you’ve lost a little traction.

© 2014 Steve Case

3 Proven Keyboard Techniques To Make Your Songs Sing

piano handsThere are so many techniques to choose from when it comes to playing the keys!

Here are 3 solid techniques you can mix and match any way you’d like to create the best rendition of your song. These are great on acoustic or electric pianos (I’m using an acoustic piano sound on the videos) and a number of other synth sounds to varying degrees. Take some time to experiment with your favorites!

Block Chords

Soft or loud, fast or slow, block chords give the listener the whole enchilada with every beat. Most typically, they are played as quarter notes pulsing through the song. Any embellishments are played along with the triad.

At a slower tempo, block chords can provide a gentle undercurrent or a bold in-your-face kind of sound. Played really fast and high, they can make you sound like Jerry Lee Lewis. In this video, I’m playing right in the middle for this pop-style progression.

(click here to watch the video)


Broken Chords

how many combinations can you think of to play a three or four note chord? One note at a time, going up or going down, playing two notes against one, or lots of other combinations. Broken chords can give a lighter touch to a song than block chords, so a standard approach is to play broken chords through the verse, then use block chords for the chorus.

One caveat with whatever method you choose for your keyboard chord progression: when you’re in the band, remember that the whole sound doesn’t depend on you. You’re only responsible for your part of it. So if you are playing block chords, any other mid-range instruments (like guitars) should play in a different style, like picking, or playing lead fills or accent chords. And it’s true the other way around. If the guitar is strumming chords, they you should probably play broken or accent chords so as not to compete for the listener’s ear. This is all part of the 100% Rule, and knowing your job description in the band.

(click here to watch the video)


Accent Chords

Sometimes it’s important for the keys to back off and add some color to the progression without carrying it.  Accent chords are strategically placed within the overall rhythm. They can be longer, held chords (as in my video), or short, bright chords that add rhythmic character and depth.  Either way, accent chords will add rhythmic, tonal and textural interest to any song you play.

(click here to watch the video)


And More

We’ll spend some time soon on choosing patches (sound textures) for your songs. Using MIDI instruments, the world is your oyster! From really great sounding orchestral instruments to odd ethnic percussion to sound effects and ambiance generators, you can easily get just the sound you’re looking for.  We’ll also go through underscoring techniques, often called padding, for those times when a little unobtrusive music is called for, gently replacing silence with instrumental wandering. (It’s not nearly as weird as I just made that sound.)


What techniques do you use on your keyboard to craft your songs just the way you want them? You can leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

Planning a Christmas EP

We need your help! Really, we’re looking for your ideas.

A New Christmas EPChristmas EP Songlist

Mike and I are in the planning stages for an upcoming Christmas EP. We hope to record it this summer and release it this fall.

There are so many great Christmas tunes out there from traditional carols to new age instrumentals, from the sacred to the lighthearted. We can’t decide which ones to record! And that’s where you come in.

What Christmas music would you suggest we record? Would you like to hear songs that are fast or slow, serious or fun, straight-forward or quirky, all of the above, or something else?

We’ve got to create our playlist soon so that we can get practicing. We’ll update you periodically. And thanks in advance for your suggestions.

What songs would you like to hear redone in a Christmas EP? Please leave your comment below, or email me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case

It’s Not Magic (How To REALLY Amaze Your Friends)

Photo (c) 2014 Steve CaseNot long ago, I saw Tommy Emmanuel in concert. He is without question one of the premier guitarists in the world, and he really inspired me (once I got over wanting to throw my own guitar in the trash as a rank amateur). He explained, at one point, the need to work at your craft, to do the work of slow and careful practice now if you want to fly later.

But for as much sense as that advice makes, it still seems like magic when I watch him play.

Whenever I encounter a person operating in their zone, exercising their gifts and talents, that’s how it seems to me. Like magic. Tasks that I might struggle with for hours can be dispatched in minutes by someone with talent, experience, and passion for their work. And the more like magic it may seem, the more you can be sure many hours and months and years were spent developing that talent.

The Architect

Case in point: my friend Stu, the architect, came for a weekend stay with us. He lives down south, but he came up for a short visit when we recruited his help with a remodel design for our 90-year-old house.

Sue and I had been talking about remodeling for some time. We (okay, mainly Sue) had been reading articles and asking advice from friends, and together we came up with a laundry list of improvements we really wanted to make. A better floor plan. A fireplace. A full bath upstairs. A more enticing entryway. A separate laundry room. Our list was something like 25 or 30 improvements long, and each was fairly important to transform our house into our dream home.

Stu and I spent several hours on Friday going through every inch of the house, measuring things I didn’t even know were there, much less thought important. Then Friday night, he unrolled his measured drawing out in the dining room, spread tracing paper over it, tossed a handful of pens onto the table with a clatter, leaned over the drawing and proceeded to blow my mind for the next 45 minutes.

He muttered a little while he drew freehand on the tracing paper. “We can move this wall over here, put the bedroom there. Blow out that wall for more space, move the entry over this way…” I watched in awe.

Here’s the thing: when I look at a wall of my house, I see… a wall. When Stu looks at a wall, he sees an opportunity. When he finished, he had figured out how to get 90% or more of our list into his design. It was pure magic to me, and I told him so.

He said, “No, it’s not magic, it’s what I do. Just like you and your music. To me, that’s magic!”

Point taken.

Making The Magic Happen

Now with either of us, talent does play a part. But talent does not take a person very far unless he or she deliberately does some things to hone it, to learn principles and techniques behind the artistry.

When I see my students play their first tune that actually sounds like the song, the look in their eyes is priceless. The magic has started to happen. In six months, their repertoire will grow as well as their ability, and the cool sounds coming from their instrument seem more logical. They know how they got there. Their success only makes sense because of the time they put in.

It’s really not magic. It’s the result of diligent study and practice intersecting with opportunity. And you can make it happen, too.

You really CAN amaze your friends!

How about you? Are you finding ways of honing your musical skill and taking advantage of opportunities to learn or to play?

Please leave your comment below. And as always, if you have any questions about music, theory or next-step musicianship, email me at [email protected]. I’ll do my best to provide clear, usable answers to help you.

Title Card 2And don’t miss our new Audio Guide and Infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. We are with you in the struggle! And we have some ideas for you on how to overcome these obstacles. We’ll send you both the audio guide and the infographic for free as our thank you when you sign up for our emails at the top of this page. As always, you have our guarantee that we will never share your emails with anyone, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

© 2014 Steve Case

The Worship Guitarist Videos, pt 3: Even More Right Hand Techniques

Left Hand TechniqueWhen I started trying to figure out how to play songs, I reminded myself of all the tools at my disposal.

I had six strings on 14 easily reachable frets, ten fingers and a guitar pick. How many different ways could I possibly play? Lots of ways, it turned out.

We’re looking one more time at how to inject more contrast into your playing. The amount of contrast you use will directly affect how interesting and emotional your song will be.

Today I’ve got three more incredibly useful ways for you to practice using your right hand. They are nothing close to revolutionary, but the more you do these things, the more depth your songs will have, the more control you’ll exercise, and the more people will hear you play and want to hear more!


Full-Range Strumming

Getting the fullest sound out of your guitar will require you to intelligently use the bottom strings (naturally, those are the ones closest to the ceiling, if you’re confused). This technique alone can separate you out from the hordes of amateur players who tentatively play from the middle strings up. Your strum will sound fuller, more balanced. You’ll always have the option of playing the bass notes separately from the rest of the chord, as in a bass counter-melody, or strumming them all together for a richer sound.

click here to watch video


Pick Direction

This is one of those “I never knew it mattered” kinds of techniques on the guitar, kind of like singing from your diaphragm, or sitting up straight when you play the piano. Your pick direction will naturally emphasize whichever area of the strings you hit first. Downstrokes make the bass strings louder and the chord sound fuller, while upstrokes emphasize the higher strings, making the chord sound brighter, crisper. Controlling your pick direction is particularly useful for playing in certain genres (try these!): for a Reggae-ish feel, use mainly upstrokes on the back-beats; for Rock & Roll, use downstrokes on 1/8 notes; for Folk or Country styles, use alternating down and up strokes.

Tempo and Groove

Gotta get the tempo right. The song won’t groove the way you want it to without paying attention to the speed. Most of us tend to rush the tempo, that is, we’ll be focusing on other things and start playing faster and faster without even thinking about it. But the right tempo can make or break the song.

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Ten Reasons You Aren't Thriving header


Because we know that every musician struggles from time to time with their music, Mike (my son) and I would like to offer some practical advice through our new audio guide and infographic, “10 Reasons You Aren’t Thriving As A Musician”. And we would like to build our relationship with you! We’ll send you the audio guide and the infographic for free as our thank you when you sign up for our emails. You can sign up in the box at the top of this page. As always, you have our guarantee that we will never share your emails with anyone, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

What techniques do you rely on as you play? Leave your comment below, or email any questions about music theory, techniques or composing to me at [email protected].

© 2014 Steve Case