Understanding Music Theory: Leading Worship, 014

Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous!

For praise from the upright is beautiful.
Praise the LORD with the harp;
Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.
Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
For the word of the LORD is right,
And all His work is done in truth.
He loves righteousness and justice;
The earth is full of the goodness of the LORD.
Psalm 33:1-5, NKJV


I really wanted to focus on Psalm 33:3 today, but the whole first bit of the psalm was just so beautiful I couldn’t resist plucking it out and putting it all here! Friends, how wonderful and mighty is our God – it is so fitting to offer Him the fullness of praise.

So, Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy.”

Today I want to elaborate on the “skillful” part of that verse, because excellence of quality regarding our craft is something God desires (and deserves) from us worship leaders.

While God is certainly not impressed with our “talent” or “skill,” (1 Samuel 16:7), He does require that we present to Him a gift that is unblemished and pure (Genesis 4:3-4).. in other words, the best of our very best.. an offering in pristine condition. So let us make certain that the seed God planted within us grows into something worthy of our call. (See Matthew 25:14-30.)

For musicians and vocalists, this does require committed practice and genuine effort.

I am a firm believer that every member on the worship team, especially the leader, understands at least the basics of music theory, and I want to explain a bit of the foundation here as a resource for you.


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Let’s take a look at scales. A scale is a set of musical notes ordered by pitch, and knowing a scale will help you easily understand different types of chords. The formula for determining any major scale, beginning at the bottom of the scale, is W W H W W W H, where “W” represents a whole step and “H” represents a half step. For example, in the key of C,


C – D – E – F – G – A – B 

W – W – H – W – W – W – H


If you begin at middle C and move a whole step up, you reach the D pitch. A whole step up from D will get you to E. A half step up from E will get you to F. (Notice that in the key of C, then, C is the first note, and G is the 5th note, for example. This will come in handy when you are trying to understand triads and other kinds of chords.)

This formula can be used to determine any major scale, and is especially helpful when working in a key that is unfamiliar to you. Let’s take a look at a different scale using this same formula.


A – B – C# – D – E – F# – G# 

W – W – H – W – W – W – H


Some major keys, like the key of A above, require the use of sharps (#) and flats (♭). If you see a #, you simply play that note a half-step up. If you see a ♭, you play that note a half-step down.


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Another tool to find out which notes are in which keys is the Circle of Fifths. The Circle of Fifths is also handy in finding out the relative minor of all major keys. It is called the “Circle of Fifths” because if you begin at C and go clockwise, you go up a perfect fifth each time. (Sometimes you’ll hear it called the Circle of Fourths, because if you begin at C and move counterclockwise, you’ll go up a fourth.)

Take a look at the Circle of Fifths.
As you move clockwise from C, you go up a perfect fifth (hence the name). Starting at the top, C, there are no sharps or flats. Move once to the right, and you add one sharp to the key signature, all the way until C#. Starting at C and going counter-clockwise, you add one flat, all the way to C♭.

Notice the letters inside the circle. These are minor keys. There are the exact same number of sharps or flats in these keys as their major counterparts. For instance, there are 3 sharps in the keys of A major and F# minor.

Now, how do you know which notes to add a sharp or flat to? You can easily find out using the scale method I mentioned above, or you can memorize the Circle of Fifths and the corresponding order of sharps and flats:


Sharps: F  C  G  D  A  E  B 

Flats: B  E  A  D  G  C  F


So, as an example, let’s look at the key of E♭. Looks like there should be three flats, and those must be B, E, and A. So the key of E♭ looks like this:

E♭  F  G  A♭  B♭  C  D

And honestly, the more you play your instrument in a variety of keys, the memorization will naturally come.


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Now let’s talk about triads, a very common type of chord. A triad is a grouping of three notes. There are four common types of triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished.

A major triad is a chord having the root, major third, and the perfect fifth, like C – E – G.

A minor triad is a chord having the root, minor third, and the perfect fifth. To make a minor third, simply “flat” it; a minor C-chord would be C – E♭ – G.

You see much more infrequently augmented and diminished triads in contemporary worship music, but some pieces require them, especially older hymns and some gospel music, so it’s helpful to know how to construct both of these kinds of chords.

An augmented triad (+) is like a major triad, but the fifth is “sharped.” So, a C+ is C – E – G#. I remember this by imagining the plus sign is telling me to “add more on.”

A diminished triad (O) is like a minor triad, but the fifth is now ♭. So, a CO chord is C – E♭ – G♭.

Each key requires a certain number of the above triads. Check this out:


C – D – E – F – G – A – B 

M – m – m – M – M – m – dim


Notice that the C, F, and G triads are all major chords; the D, E, and A triads are minor; and the B triad is diminished. Some people prefer to use a numbering system, which means the exact same thing:


C – D – E – F – G – A – B 

I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viiO


(One thing to remember about the numbering system: it is moveable, meaning that the first note of every key is “I,” so you have to know which key you mean to play in.)

This outline for major, minor, and diminished triads is the same formula for every major key.

So, if I were playing in the key of C, and the music called for an F, which happens to be major, I would play F – A – C. (I arrive at these notes because I must play an F, its major third, and its perfect fifth – remember the definition of “major.”)

Again in the key of C, if the music called for a D minor (written as either Dm or ii), I would play D – F – A. (I arrive at these chords because I must play a D, its minor third, and its perfect fifth – remember the definition of “minor.”)

If the music called for a B diminished triad (written as either BO, Bdim or viiO) in the key of C, I would play B – D – F.


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Dear friends, I know I took to the chalkboard for this blog post, but I pray that this is a good resource for you if you don’t know the basics or need to refresh yourself. I hope to do several more music theory posts in the future, because there is SO much more that could be said about music theory.

So play on, worship pastors, worship leaders, and musicians! God deserves the very best – not only of our hearts and minds, but also of our talents and skills. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out to me. Or if you can explain any of this better than me, please leave it in the comments below!! Praying for you and believing for the best..

Josh


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