Today we have an interview with Mark Altrogge, a pastor in Indiana, Pa., who sets Bible verses to music to help people memorize Scripture.
Listen to Jude 24-25 (mp3) while you read the interview. We’ve been humming it all morning.
You can buy Mark’s six CDs at his website, forevergrateful.com. They run $9.99 each, and you can listen to lots of samples from each CD before you buy. Each CD contains about twenty verses to memorize. The four most recent CDs use the ESV.
Thanks to reader Beth for the tip. She writes that her family has all the CDs and that the music helps them memorize many more verses than they would otherwise.
Update November 23, 2005: Listen to another of Mark’s songs that we link to in a later post.
How did you get the idea for setting Bible verses to music to help memorization?
I have loved music since I was a young boy. As a teenager in a band, my heroes (I was not saved) were John Lennon and Paul McCartney particularly for their songwriting. I wrote many songs before the Lord apprehended me in 1974, and after becoming a believer, I began to try to write Christian songs. I had a job about 30 minutes away from my apartment, and wanted to memorize Scripture, so each day I would write a verse on a notecard and try to make up a song with that verse to try to memorize it. I found that music connected to Scripture made it much easier for me to remember the Word. I could remember the words to rock songs I learned as a teenager, so I figured why not apply that principle to memorizing Scripture.
What made you want to record and sell CDs to a wider audience?
In the ’80s I began to set Scriptures to song and record them primarily for myself and my family (our children were little then). These were just me and my guitar, though occasionally my wife Kristi would sing on some. A few years later I began making cassettes of Scripture songs available to the church I pastor. I thought that if joining Scripture to music helped me to memorize the Word, then perhaps others could benefit as well.
Why did you choose the ESV?
I began using the ESV because it came so highly recommended from a number of teachers I really respect who serve in our family of churches, Sovereign Grace Ministries, such as CJ Mahaney, who heads the leadership team of Sovereign Grace and Jeff Purswell, who is Dean of our Pastor’s College, as well as theologians and teachers like John Piper and Wayne Grudem. I had begun using the ESV personally and in my preaching and included verses from the ESV on Hide the Word 3. I encouraged folks in our church to consider changing to the ESV because of its accuracy of translation and the commitment of the publisher to never compromise the translation despite future cultural trends.
Most of your songs involve a verse or two. Have you considered writing songs using longer passages? Or is shorter better when it comes to memorizing and setting Scripture to music?
It does get more difficult to set Scriptures to music as you use longer passages. I would believe in the value of memorizing long passages, but I don’t think I have what it takes to set a really long passage to music. I have done a few passages that are 3 verses, which is about my musical limit.
How do you come up with new melodies for each verse? How do you make the songs sound different?
A catchy melody is very important for any song to be memorable. I have always been fascinated with melody. I’m not quite sure how I come up with new melodies, but I often experiment with different melodies as I’m working on songs. I listen to a lot of music and a lot of different kinds of music, including rock, jazz, movie scores, and worship. I really like instrumental music a lot. Exposing myself to lots of melodies helps me with melody. Also, I like to listen to good songwriters and ask myself what makes their melodies good—do they start high and drop down, what kind of intervals do they use between notes, etc.
To try to make the songs sound different, as I’m working on songs for a new CD, I try to have a variety in musical style, tempo, electric vs. acoustic, guitar-driven vs. piano-driven, etc. Sometimes I begin with what is called a “drum loop,” which is a pre-recorded drum beat that can be imported into a recording session on a computer. For example, I might start with a Latin percussion loop. Often the rhythm will give the song its basic feel.
My friend Chris McCrea, who you will notice is on all the albums but one, plays a number of instruments as well as sings. He is incredibly gifted and creative. Once or twice a year, he will drive up from his home in Virginia Beach to spend a marathon weekend with me recording. I send him rough copies of the songs and he then comes up with all kinds of ideas for sounds, different instrumental ideas, harmonies and sometimes even radical new arrangement ideas. The last time he came up he said that he thought that a particular song needed sleigh bells in the background.
Sometimes I will try to imitate the styles of certain bands. For example, on Refuge and Strength (Hide the Word 4) on the last song, 1 JN 5:11-12, just for fun, I tried to write a song that sounded like the Beatles in style and then put every Beatle-type sound in it that I could. So I threw in sitar and tabla sounds in one section, and Chris McCrea came up a “Strawberry Fields”-type organ sound in another part, as well as a “cornet” part reminiscent of “Penny Lane” in the last section.
You sing the Scripture reference (e.g., “1 Peter 5:6-7”) in each song. Is it hard coming up with new ways to set the references to music?
I try to consciously avoid falling into the same way of ending the songs. It does require some effort not to fall into “standard” kinds of endings.
How do you pick which verses to set to music?
I usually try to have several verses on each CD that refer in some way to the Cross and the redemption God has provided for us through Christ, because by God’s grace I always want to keep my own eyes and others eyes fixed on the gospel and our Savior. Then I seek to include some verses that have been particularly helpful to me in my own life, such as promises that have encouraged me, strengthened or comforted me. I also will try to include verses that I would want to remember should I get a chance to share the gospel with someone. And then finally, I will try to include a verse or two that are commands from Scripture that we are to obey.
How do you go about writing new songs? Can you lead us through the steps you take from beginning to end?
Sure. With a Scripture song, the process is much easier than a worship song, since the lyrics are already written. I take the Scripture verse, and after deciding the style of song I would like to try to write, I sit down with my guitar and just begin to play and sing (or play and sing over a loop, as described above). It is usually just a matter of trial and error, trying different chords and melodies until something seems to click.
Writing worship songs is more involved, because one does not start with set lyrics. If any of your readers would desire more information about how to write worship songs, they can check out the Sovereign Grace Ministries website or email me and I’d be happy to send them some materials.
Your more recent albums feature more instruments and singers. How did they get involved?
I asked them. I am so grateful for all of the singers and musicians who help me, because they sacrifice their time simply to bless the Lord and others. Chris McCrea in particular, has put many miles on his car and taken vacation days to help me. A couple others live some distance away (like Rochelle Calvetti and Stacy Pomroy who live in Pittsburgh, which is 1-1/2 hours from my home). I could not possibly do these albums without their help.
How many verses would you say you have memorized?
I don’t know exactly, since I have been trying to memorize Scripture since the mid-’70s. I have not kept them all systematically organized. Also, I have to keep reviewing because I can forget the exact wording. But I will say that memorizing Scripture has been a major blessing in my life. Many times as I have been counseling someone or preparing a message to preach or witnessing, the Holy Spirit has brought Scriptures to my mind that I memorized in the past that were perfect for the moment. The Lord has also brought Scriptures to my mind at times when I have found myself in the midst of trials or temptations. So I would encourage people to memorize Scripture in any way that works for them.
How do you find time to write and record and still have a day job?
By neglecting personal hygiene and home maintenance. No—actually I’m not sure—I just try to find time as I’m able. Songwriting is so enjoyable to me (what grace God has poured out on me that I get to do something that is so much fun) that it is not hard for me to go down to my studio for a few minutes even if I’m tired or it’s the end of the day.
You have a new album that is about to come out. What can we expect from it?
Thank you for mentioning it. It is called “Weight of Glory” (Hide the Word 6). I think it is the best one so far musically. Of course, you can’t improve upon Scripture for the lyrics. There are more live drums and better guitar sounds. And I have tried to vary the styles again somewhat—there is a jazzy one on there which I think is my personal favorite (PS 34:9-10). I think that the singers and musicians did a really great job.
It has been shipped to me, so I hope to have it available on my website this coming week, if I live and the Lord wills.
Thanks for taking the interest you have and giving me this opportunity.