The Fraction Principle: How To Make Beautiful Music By Playing Less

The Fraction Principle is, perhaps, the most important band-arranging principle any musician, worship leader, or arranger can implement immediately to make their music start sounding 100% better.

I first heard about The Fraction Principle from my master arranger/co-writing buddy, Bruce Ellis. He spoke in terms of the “Layering Principle” (which includes The Fraction Principle, plus other ideas on building a band’s sound from the ground up).

Then I heard Brian Doerksen, well-known worship leader and songwriter, speak of a similar idea he called The Fraction Principle.

Whatever you want to call it, this is THE game changing idea for worship leaders arranging bands, and musicians attempting to make beautiful music.

What Is The Fraction Principle?

The phrase, “The Fraction Principle” is unpacked in here, and emphasizes the reality that the sound of every band should add up to “1.”

In other words, if there are 7 people playing in the band, each band member only plays 1/7 of what they could play if they were on their own.

In other words, all musicians are playing a fraction of what they could play, based on the number of other musicians involved.

If the sound adds up to 7 – i.e. everyone playing willy nilly what they would play if they were on their own, the music is dense, frenetic, and often downright stressful to listen to.

Ever hear a classical pianist join a worship band who has no training in creating space for the other instruments? Their masterful hands are going everywhere, and there is no need for the other instruments.

Or have you ever heard a band where the acoustic guitar is being strummed by the worship leader like it’s going out of style (or like they were leading the group without a band supporting them). Or 4 vocalists are all piling on the microphones with full vibrato? Or the bass player is playing busy bass lines to make sure they get all their chops showing up in every song?

The old adage is true. Good music facilitates worship. Bad music distracts us from worship. It’s just true.

Applying The Fraction Principle In Your Setting

Here is The Fraction Principle practically applies in a band setting:

  • The keyboard player is no longer needed to pound out bass lines with his or her left hand since the bass player is already covering that part.
  • The electric player, while he could play every Jimmy Hendrix lick he knows, pulls way back and creates space for the other guitars, keyboards, mandolins, and other instruments.
  • Have 4 vocalists? They are now not all singing at the same time. They are choosing parts, and if they are blending, they sound like 1 voice – not 4 (see this post if you are a vocalist or arranger of vocals in a worship context).
  • The acoustic guitar player does NOT strum full out, all of the time. They do downstrokes, occasional strums, lightly pick, and more according to what the song demands.
  • Musicians who learned classically, or alone in their bedroom, do not need to fill up all the musical space if a band is present. They play primarily with their right hand (to make room for the bass to do their thing), and they play more sparse notes and phrases to fill in the gaps.

I.e. Everyone plays a fraction of what they could play when in a band.

Make Space For The Other Instruments

When musicians are making space for one another, the music starts to breathe.

And breathing space in the music… is beautiful.

Apply this simple principle the next time you play or rehearse, as a band.

And when the music starts sounding too dense, remind each other to apply The Fraction Principle.

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Question: How is your band at applying The Fraction Principle? Have you heard it work?

Resource: This is covered fully in Essentials In Worship in the Complete Worship Leader Training Manual (page 38) in the arranging and set-building section.

Bio: Dan Wilt, M.Min. is the creator of the Essentials In Worship Video Training Course for worship leaders and teams, and is the Founder of WorshipTraining.com, a media-training network of over 31K worship leaders and musicians. He serves as a worship leader in Franklin, TN, and has taught in Worship & Arts programs for schools like St. Stephen’s University and Indiana Wesleyan. Dan is a songwriter, hymn writer, and author, and has served as a conference speaker globally. Dan works with his church family at Vineyard USA and Vineyard Worship in various support roles, and he, his wife Anita, and 3 young adult children live in Thompson’s Station, TN. His ancient-future worship leadership blog offers weekly tools and team encouragements at DanWilt.com.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “The Fraction Principle: How To Make Beautiful Music By Playing Less

  1. Well said as usual. One of my favorite concepts, i normally think of as a piece of the pie (like Paul Baloche taught in his video)…. this is a great reminder. The best teams know how to play less!

  2. Agreed 100% and appreciate the wording.

    I have used the analogy of an ice cream sundae… we’re not putting the entire bucket of Mint ice cream in our bowl or there’s no room for syrup, nuts (if you’re not allergic), candy bar pieces, and maybe a scoop of cookie dough ice cream. Every party must be mindful of our bowl’s capacity.

    Similarly, if you don’t have a decent drummer in church, just play without drums. Let God provide the instrumentation he wants in your church. Applying this idea to all instruments and some churches may be singing a cappella, but that’s ok for a season. Does this seem off-topic? Made sense before I started typing…

  3. My husband and I are worship pastors at our church. He plays guitar, I play keys. We actually have been doing this for many years, and very successfully.we have a very spiritually mature team who are very in sync with each other and the Holy Spirit. And we don’t always do a song the same way each time. Our team understands the concept, we’ve always called it layering.
    However, sometimes with certain musicians, if they have ego issues, it’s hard to get them to understand that they are important, and yet don’t have to play or sing every note of the song.

  4. A few comments on the above…

    Topically applied, yes. Short term solution, it works.

    Long term, not so good. Musicianship is needed.

    I would say that it’s good musicianship, rather than “good music” as defined here is the key factor. Perhaps this is what was meant by Mr. Wilt. Musicianship is a growth process and takes years, in fact, it can take a lifetime. Immature young musicians can play all (or less in this case) the good music they want and it still won’t sound that good. No matter how hard they try. They have not (yet) the necessary skills or experience. What is described here cannot be literally attained if one is to use their talents to the full. And one cannot cut back on a percentage if they don’t know what the limit is. A mature person, even if a weak musician, knows what that limit is by instinct.

    Spiritual maturity has a lot to do with it. A spiritually mature person, even if a beginner or amateur musician simply will not be a musical problem. Most young (and old) musicians serving the Lord struggle with envy and pride just like everyone else. Many younger musicians have also not yet been humbled. Every good musician needs humbling in order to be a good musician. Every improvising musician goes through a “chops” phase… it’s how you learn to master your instrument and be good at what you do. Of course, excessive chops should always be dialed down in a worship service. But the spiritually mature musician will automatically do that. And he may be dialing down 90% of his ability to accommodate the balance for the sake of the band. Tough musical work, but someone has to do it.

    Also, if one player in the worship band is a more advanced musician (pro level) than the rest of the group (beginners, amateurs, home grown hobbyists, etc.) this % approach makes no sense. The band clearly could use the pros help to learn and be better musicians making beautiful music. Unless the pro’s obedience (desire) is to maintain their present situation, that person would soon be very unhappy worshiping in that environment because of the lack of musicianship. Dropping off percentages would only make it worse. I’m not talking notes, but concept. If the guitar player is still out of tune, what can you do? Any drummer, for example has to be at 100% of his maximum capability to groove with integrity. How can you slice that into a percentage? What if the drummer grooves and the bass player can’t keep time or choose foundational (correct) bass notes? This happens in a lot of church bands… and its a struggle.

    Again, it’s not just a matter of balance of “amputating” the classical pianist’s left hand to attain a certain % and that balance always = “less is more”. Perhaps that person is ill suited for such a role in a worship band where original, creating, improvisational thinking take more of a role. A skillful mature keyboardist will always use both hands, avoiding the bass notes, either comping or layering keyboards for orchestrational and parts purposes. One hand on the piano, another on an organ or synth. Layering pads with another keyboard or sound. This requires talent, training, experience, and maturity. At this long view level, simply cutting formula percentages is not the answer.

    For me, it’s about filling holes when needed. In our worship band, as a pro level keyboard player who has worshiped with amateur musicians for many years, I play with all my heart (100%) joyfully surrounded by the balance of the limits of those about me. Those balances free me to play my best, always.

  5. This is a profound truth. Less can be and frequently is more. The job of any worship leader – better ‘facilitator’, is primarily to provide an avenue, a space into which people can enter and into which they themselves have first gone. I used to lead worship – in a very minimalist style. The music flowed as one instrument gave way to another and sometimes a keyboard player or guitarist played just a few musical phrases as a reminder to the people and just left it like that. What happens if the guy who needs to fill all the space dominates? Clanging cymbal and sounding brass. It’s discordant, and with the best will in the world, selfishly dishonoring since it screams ‘look at me’.

  6. a big thumbs up to Ray Lyon; you absolutely nailed it. that summed up everything i could ever want to say. i want to work with you lol.

    I agree with Ben also-
    a good drummer is absolutely necessary. I would rather play without one as a bassist then to have one that cannot lay a steady groove. unfortunately, solid drummers are as rare as gold. as a pro level bassist, i can tell immediately when a drummer is going to be an issue; i can sense those minute push/pull timing issues that others cannot perceive as easily. i know when a drummer is consciously having his way within time and when time is having his way with a drummer.
    in 30 years of playing bass, i have only run across maybe 5 drummers that i have played with who i thought were musicians and not just noisemakers. that is a sobering statistic.

    I believe that most of the time, positions are filled in worship and praise teams and leaders compromise frequently to fill spots. quality is better than quantity; if you have no guitarist then go without one; if you have a good bassist, he can cover the extra ground. a bad tambourine player can destroy an otherwise good group. a good keyboardist can cover a weak bassist and/or no bassist. the best teams when i played were often with sparse instrumentation with lots of holes and space.
    less is almost always more-the only time more is more is when a good player knows how to inject “more” without distracting from the song or the flow.

    I believe there are three major prerequisites to being in a P&W team-
    -taste
    -sensitivity
    -execution.

    sadly, most P&W teams sound amateur and garage-band-ish.
    they say the best way to improve as a player is to record yourself and listen back to your performance. this only works if the musicians are honest about it; I swear most players cannot hear the issues and/or are in denial. IME-this doesn’t always work.

    as a pro-level bassist of 30+ years currently serving, I am very frustrated with the lack of competent players I am surrounded with. I can only do so much without losing my musical integrity along the way. I serve the music and look for reasons to play less. I am a mature and egoless player. I am surrounded by poor drummers and this is my Achilles heel. in fact, I find that my confidence as a player is shattered when I play with terrible drummers; they choke my ability to express myself and/or do what i could do if given different circumstances.

    the biggest problem within P&W circles is the attitude-” the heart is more important than the ability”.
    think about this for a moment-
    if your church washroom was flooding and you needed it fixed correctly, do you go with the guy with the big heart or the most competent one to fix the leak? I rest my case.

    although serving in a church is voluntary, it still needs some business sense conducted to make it operate at an acceptable level. people need to understand the difference between filling a hole because they can vs. finding your true calling and sticking with that. there are many musicians in churches that are serving on the wrong instruments. i have seen P&W leaders that were better on the drums; i have heard drummers that were better on the keys etc.
    I would rather hear canned music then a poor P&W team if it came down to it.
    I am sure that I can be perceived as arrogant and intolerant/insensitive as a player, but I care about the quality of the finished product. i would love to be surrounded by people that share a common love for good music played properly in the house of the Lord.

    my question is this-

    where are all the musical directors in churches that actually GET IT? I realize the best ones are already spoken for and well compensated to remain where they are.

    i should mention that the church i serve in is no small operation- there is a large pool of players to choose from.

  7. Hey, I am facing a problem. I am at a church where we have no professional musician and I am trying to play the keyboard and can only play basic chords . I have six voices and a guitar player who most of the time is of key and out of time, and a drummer who can barely keep a steady beat. We really want to worship what do you suggest can we do to. The congregation is small so we seem to be “up the creek without a paddle”. Oh did I mention I also lead the praise and worship?

  8. there is a quote I found regarding “10 commandments of bass guitar”- this list can apply to any musician though…
    #8-‘thou shalt leave the fancy stuff to other bandmates so they may wrestle with their own bad taste.’

    I thought that this quote harmonizes beautifully with the fraction principle.

  9. Well written article mate. You really nailed it. Its a struggle to get musicians to play less coz everyone wants to be heard but overall what will be coming out wont be beautiful.