Every Sunday in churches across the U.S., music acts as the centerpiece of the religious services. With that in mind, the country's largest Protestant denomination is spending millions of dollars to tailor worship songs to individual churches.
The Southern Baptist Convention has introduced a new Web-based application called SongMap, which allows music ministers to rearrange hymns and contemporary praise songs with a few clicks of the mouse. For example, the traditional hymn "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross" has four verses and four choruses, but the Web site allows a verse to be cut, a chorus to be added or the song to be put in a new key.
When the song is mapped, a window pops up with a dozen alternative segments. Once those are arranged, the score can be printed out for bass guitar, piano and even a trombone. For a fee, you can download the audio of the custom arrangement.
Part-time music minister Kirk Kirkland rarely plays a song the same way twice. Sometimes he needs it shorter or in a different key. He says that all the variation can confuse his volunteer musicians, which makes the custom sheet music all the more useful.
"This way, I can just do it, hand it out, and all they have to do is play it from beginning to end, just the way it's written," Kirkland says.
That helps prevent distracting hiccups and miscues on stage. But Kirkland says he likes SongMap for another reason: He's a songwriter and studio singer by trade.
"I want to make sure all of those creative people get what they're owed," he says.
Music ministers are notorious for copying sheet music without permission, says Mike Harland, who oversees SongMap for LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the same way iTunes gave people an easy means to legitimately pay for albums, Harland says he hopes SongMap can do the same for worship music.
Blake Farmer reports for member station WPLN.