'Tis a Gift: Free--and nearly free--music resources

When deciding which sung prayers to put on the lips of God’s people each Sunday morning, worship leaders today have more choices than ever. Well over 200,000 songs are now available in print alone. But we’re entering a post-Gutenberg age; the Internet has become a significant source for worship music.

Free music is available on the Web in many different forms. Type the title of the song your congregation is clamoring for into your search engine and you’ll likely find a dozen or more hits. Some may even include guitar chords. While wildly popular, these sites are mostly illegal and sometimes illiterate. Missed chords and misunderstood lyrics are commonplace. For instance, one popular site transcribes the psalmic phrase “he brought me out of the pit/out of the mire and clay” from U2’s “40” as “he bought me right out of the pit/out of my reglade.”

www.worshipmusic.com

Despite inaccuracies, sites like this one are helpful if you get a song request and want to check out the lyrics yourself to test its fittingness for a particular service. Chances are good you can also check out online what the song sounds like, giving you the opportunity to try before you buy.

And there’s the rub. Before you buy. This music isn’t given away in a form useful for congregations or choirs or worship teams. What you get is just a taste, a sample meant to tantalize you into purchasing a folio or songbook or album. If you’re going to use a piece of music at your church you probably need something more: legible notes on staff paper and legal permission.

www.praisecharts.com

Which is exactly what you get at www.praisecharts.com. Here you can download sheet music for a contemporary worship band. You can preview (in PDF format), purchase, and print hundreds of popular titles from all the big publishing houses. The songs include scored parts for rhythm, vocals, brass, wind, and strings. There are also more “traditional” numbers; for instance, a medley of Christmas carols arranged for organ and brass quartet. A handful of songs are available for free, but most cost a little more: lead sheets for $4 and full arrangements for $15-$40 per song. This site is a real blessing for worship leaders and musicians who don’t have an arranging genius in their heads or down the block.

Of course, this website is also about generating revenue. Some contend that this mix of motivation—ministry and industry—is altogether problematic, and so they abandon the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

www.ShareSong.org
www.freepraiseandworship.org

The folks at the musical co-op www.ShareSong.org (and its sister site www.freepraiseandworship.org) belong to this camp. Their position is spelled out on a page entitled “Manifesto”: “Jesus saved his harshest rebuke for those people who turned God’s House into a marketplace rather than a place of worship.. . . ShareSong.org is a place where Christian songwriters can publish their worship music and have churches, worship pastors and home groups around the world use it freely for God’s glory.”

The site has nearly 1,000 songs—easily searchable by keyword, title, author, and so on. Some are the product of mom-and-pop church musicians; others are “teasers” placed by contracted musicians in hopes that you’ll eventually buy more of their work through traditional distribution channels. Some established writers have simply given away their music because they believe it’s right to do so; the classic first-generation praise & worship song “Our God Reigns” is at the top of the list of frequent downloads.

Like Napster and the MP3 revolution in the popular music industry, the intent here is to cut out the middlemen and make music widely and immediately available. In addition to songs that are intended to stand the test of time, there are offerings intended only for a season: a song written in response to the events of 9/11 and a musical setting of the culturally ubiquitous Prayer of Jabez.

The site encourages churches to report their use of songs to CCLI so that royalties can be paid and copyrights protected. Still, it’s astonishing that this much free music is available—and available in so many usable formats: MP3, RealPlayer, and MIDI files to listen to, chords and lyrics for guitarists, overhead transparencies, and sheet music for those who need it. The material can be easily downloaded and printed or otherwise used with minimal fuss.

So do you get what you pay for in a site with so much stuff? There are some winners, sure, and some losers. Yet I was surprised, when browsing the songs, how often I thought, “Hey, that could work well this week.” And you really can’t beat the price.

Ron Rienstra is associate professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary and co-author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker Academic, 2009).